Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Look Into The(F.O.I) Freedom Of Information Bill

LET us begin with a
comparison by taking a short
trip down memory lane. Our
comparison makes a strong
statement about the
democratic credentials of
both individuals involved
and, to some extent, their
relative suitability for the
position of president for
which they both sought the
support of Nigerians
Within days of his becoming
Head of State in 1984
Mohammadu Buhari, a Major
General in the Nigerian army,
responded to an
interviewer ’s question on
what he thought of Nigerian
journalists and press
freedom in general. His
answer was unequivocal just
as his hostility was not
Without mincing words
Buhari vowed with every
solemnity he could muster to
‘ tamper’ with the freedom of
the Nigerian press. His
regime wasted no time
thereafter in promulgating
the infamous Decree 4 which
sought to protect public
officers by recommending a
jail term for a journalist that
wrote anything that could be
remotely seen as
embarrassing to a public
In one fell swoop General
Buhari inverted the very
basis of a free press and one
of the foundational
principles of a democratic
society. Not even the Official
Secret Act upon which
principles the public service
has for long been sustained,
variants of which the
colonialists used to muzzle
nationalist agitators- not
even this Act had the
draconian reach of Buhari’s
Decree 4.
In no time at all two
journalists working for the
Nigerian Guardian, Tunde
Thompson and Nduka Irabor
who would later go on to be
a legislator in the Federal
House of Representatives,
ran foul of the decree and
were summarily, to use
another favourite term of the
military, sent to jail against
local and international
Buhari would follow this up
with the setting up of
military tribunals that sent
many corrupt politicians and
others the regime simply did
not like to prison terms that
were longer than several
lifetimes in very harsh
Roll forward to 2011, some
27 years later and both
Buhari and Goodluck
Jonathan would stand before
Nigerians to seek their votes
to become president in a
democratic contest. Buhari
who had carefully preserved
his unbending, iron-man
reputation over the many
years since he was ousted
from both the military and
power in a barrack coup
would lose once more.
It was his third defeat in as
many contests. The only
difference is that his latest
defeat was followed by an
orgy of violent reaction by
his supporters who seemed
to have been acting out a
script. Jonathan won the
election and one of his first
acts after he was sworn in as
president on May 29 was to
give presidential assent to
the Freedom of Information
Bill that had been
languishing in the cold for
several years.
The FOI Act had been made
to look like a law intended to
sanction unbridled intrusion
into the private activities of
politicians. In 2007 President
Obasanjo, another
reconditioned politician and
democrat who earlier
functioned as a military head
of state, refused to sign the
bill into law. It ’s easy to
imagine, given his
antecedents, that Buhari
wouldn ’t have given assent
to the FOI Bill had he won
the presidential contest.
But Jonathan has done it,
arguably, not as a populist
gesture but as someone with
an intellectual appreciation
of what the Bill is meant to
In its travails through the
corridors of power it ’s not
impossible that the true
intent of the FOI Bill is hardly
understood by the very
people who had stood in its
way. Yet the Bill seeks no
more than to make public
officers at once accountable
and responsible to the
electorate. It makes it
mandatory for public officers
or others in possession of
sought information to
provide them within seven
This is a great leap forward
in our democratic ascent. No
more can civil servants or
others hide behind the
Official Secret Act and such
other laws to urge every civil
servant, public officers and
politicians to ‘keep our
secrets secret’.
The books can now be
opened for scrutiny, at least
in principle. Those
governors, senior officials
and politicians said to be
signing financial documents
with their left hands in order
to avoid detection may no
longer find it easy. But we do
know, as Nigerians, that
matters are not as simple as
There would still be people
holding on to principles of
the old regime, refusing to
provide information where
they are sought. Such people
would not always be
politicians or top public
servants. There would still be
the old civil servants that
have refused to change with
the times. People like that
should not have a part in the
new dispensation.
They should, to borrow a
cliché, either ‘shape up or
ship out’. Even at that the
matter is not settled. The
passing of the FOI Bill into
law imposes responsibility
on journalists too. The era of
lazy journalism is at an end.
No more can somebody sit
back in their newsroom to
manufacture stories and
cook up facts. This, it would
appear, is the aspect of the
journalistic trade that
opponents of the FOI Bill
In giving his assent to the
FOI Bill President Jonathan is
challenging Nigerians to
stand up for the defence of
their democratic rights and
aspirations. The field has
been opened to all to
become more than arm chair
critics of the system but
active participants in the
development of a new
political culture.
Constituents who see their
representatives as failing in
their duties or short
changing them now have the
right to call for the records
and insist on full disclosure
of issues, especially with
regard to the management
of their resources.
In a country where many are
not literate enough to know
their rights or know of the
existence of certain
provisions of the law except
only when they run foul of
such provisions, there would
be need for effective
enlightenment of the
People should be made
aware of the provisions of
the FOI Act to give them
opportunity to fully take
advantage of it, and
politicians and departments
of government responsible
for public enlightenment as
well as the press have a
major role to play in this
regard. Nigeria might just
have entered another phase
in her democratic growth.

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