Rights-Nigeria: Freedom of Information Bill Proves Elusive
By Sam Olukoya, Lagos, NEWS June 21, 2004. Posted to the web June 21, 2004
Inter Press Service (Johannesburg)
In recent decades, Nigeria has acquired the unhappy reputation of being one of the world's most corrupt states. It would also earn a high ranking in a list of the most secretive nations.
Virtually all government information in Nigeria is classified as top secret. Longe Ayode of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a Lagos-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), says this veil of secrecy makes it difficult to get information from any state agency.
"If you want useful information from a government department, they will not give it to you. They will tell you it is classified information," he told IPS.
A plethora of laws prevents civil servants from divulging official facts and figures, notably the Official Secrets Act which makes it an offence not only for civil servants to give out government information - but also for anyone to receive or reproduce such information.
Further restrictions are contained in the Evidence Act, the Public Complaints Commission Act, the Statistics Act and the Criminal Code - amongst others.
"The idea behind these laws is to protect vital government information, but the level of secrecy is so ridiculous that some classified government files contain ordinary information like newspaper cuttings which are already in the public domain," says Tunji Adeleke, a legal practitioner.
So impenetrable is the veil of secrecy that government departments withhold information from each other under the guise of official secrets legislation. There are also instances where civil servants refuse to give the National Assembly documentation after being asked to do so.
The result of this is that journalists are denied access to information that is critical for accurate reporting, and unraveling the web of corruption in Nigeria.
"When you are in public office and have soiled your hands in the pot of corruption, you will try to prevent your being exposed by classifying as top secret documents that can implicate you," journalist Ayodele Ojo told IPS.
Students also find themselves barred from reading documents necessary for their research.
"In the name of official secrets, somebody sits on information that will benefit millions of people. In advanced countries, some of (this) classified information would ordinarily be found on the internet," observes Ayode.
"If these secrecy laws are not there, people will sit up. If you know the public will get access to your fraudulent acts you will not do it," he adds. Enter the proposed Freedom of Information Bill.
This law was first submitted to the National Assembly when Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999, following a succession of military dictatorships. But, the legislature's four-year term passed without the bill being voted on.
The bill was re-submitted after the current National Assembly was inaugurated a year ago, but the body has yet to push the law through - this despite vigorous lobbying by the Freedom of Information Coalition. Over a hundred media groups, business interests and human rights organisations have joined forces to press for the introduction of the bill - which is about to come under debate again in the capital, Abuja.
The International Press Centre (IPC), an NGO that supports the independent media in Nigeria, is currently running a campaign that urges all interested parties to send text messages to the mobile phones of legislators in support of the bill. About 200 phone numbers are listed on the IPC's website, which advises activists to "Simply send politely worded messages randomly to any of the members requesting their support."
The MRA is also at the forefront of this battle. The NGO says that it joined forces with the Civil Liberties Organisation and the Nigerian Union of Journalists as long ago as 1993 to push for freedom of information legislation in Nigeria, and that it has held numerous workshops in this regard.
A draft bill was produced by the MRA in 1994, the Access to Official Information Act. According to the NGO, this draft became the predecessor of the current Freedom of Information Bill.
IPC member Lanre Arogundade says legislators failed to maintain the promising momentum gained which the bill was first mooted: "We had the impression the bill would be passed quickly. But after four years of the first National Assembly, nothing happened."
"The same thing is repeating itself now. It is over a year now that the new National Assembly got under way; (but) they are yet to pass the bill."
Arogundade also believes that that President Olusegun Obasanjo - whose cooperation the coalition has solicited - is a key opponent of the bill. "The president is afraid that the bill (will) give the media too much power to probe the activities of those in government," he told IPS.
It's a charge that presidential advisor Julius Ihonvbere denies, claiming that Obasanjo simply has reservations about provisions of the bill that would allow foreigners access to official information.
The parliamentary committee which is in charge of issues pertaining to the bill also refutes claims that the proposed law has gotten stuck in a legislative limbo. According to Deputy Chairman Francis Amadiegwu, "The bill has generated a lot of interest and we are fine tuning aspects that will affect national security. Thereafter it should be passed."
But, these words are cold comfort to those Nigerians who believe, as former American President Thomas Jefferson did, that "Information is the currency of democracy." They might argue that the time has come for a little less "fine tuning" - and a little more action in the form of giving the bill the green light.
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