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Nigeria: No right to know
09 July 2010

Lagos: Nigeria's Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill will be eleven years old in October, making it one of the oldest unpassed bills of this democratic dispensation. It took five years of debate for it to scale through to the Senate from the House of Representatives. Passage by the Senate took another two years. By the time the two versions were harmonised and sent to President Obasanjo for his signature in February 2007, his Presidency - only a few months old when the bill first made its appearance - was into its final months.

Mr. Obasanjo not only refused to sign it, he also refused to return it to the National Assembly. This meant that when the tenure of the National Assembly that passed the bill lapsed in May 2007, the bill was automatically voided, and would have to make a fresh journey from scratch under a new dispensation. It was duly re-presented on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2007, and perhaps by virtue of the fact that it was far from being a fresh bill, quickly scaled separate deliberations by both chambers of the Assembly.

By November 2007, the bill was ready for harmonization by a joint session of both chambers. However, almost three years after, the bill remains stalled in the National Assembly, and continues to be a source of tension whenever it is brought up for discussion.

The right to know arguments for passage of freedom-to-know legislation are premised on Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed on December 10, 1948 by the General Assembly of United Nations, and which states that:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Such legislation, variously known as ‘Freedom of Information Act,' ‘Open Records Laws' or ‘Sunshine Laws,' are intended to guarantee access by citizens to information and data held by the government and by public bodies.

The situation of Nigeria is not unusual when one takes the African continent into consideration. Of the more than eighty countries worldwide that have enacted effective FOI legislation, only a handful - South Africa, Angola, and Uganda - are African.

Others, like Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya have made a show of introducing such legislation, but the bills remain bogged down in their various parliaments, evidence that the leadership is not particularly keen on the transparency that such laws will create.

In May 2003, Boyce Sebetela, the then Minister of Communications, Science and Technology in Botswana, was quoted as saying that the Freedom of Information bill was "not a priority". That view, tragically, appears to be shared by most countries on the African continent, Nigeria included.

Which might explain why, on Tuesday, the newly appointed chairman of Nigeria's House of Representatives Committee on Information and National Orientation, Aliyu Wadada, expressed doubt that the FOI bill, already over-debated and long overdue, will be passed during the tenure of the current National Assembly. The waiting game, therefore, continues for those hoping that the "sun" will soon shine on government information in the country.

* By Tolu Ogunlesi

Keywords: freedom of information, Nigeria,
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