President Jonathan Signs the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill into Law
On May 28, 2011, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan signed the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill into law bringing to a fruitful conclusion, the more than 11 years of strenuous and tortuous advocacy for the enactment of the law.
On May 31, 2011, the Deputy Director of Information in the office of the Special Adviser to President Jonathan on Media, Mr. Justus Abuah, disclosed in Abuja that: “President Goodluck Jonathan has signed the Freedom of Information Bill, 2011 into law”.
According to Mr. Abuah, “the Bill which was passed by the outgoing National Assembly was conveyed to the Presidency on Friday, May 27, 2011. President Jonathan assented to it on Saturday, May 28”.
He stated further that: “the objective of the Act is to make public records and information more freely available and to also protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy”.
The journey to having the FOI Act in Nigeria started on December 8, 1999 with the fourth National Assembly (Parliament). But the bill never made it through the two chambers of the National Assembly before the expiration of their terms of office in 2003.
As required by law, Media Rights Agenda again presented it through its contact to the fifth National Assembly which commenced work afresh on the bill in 2003. Four years on, in 2007, the House of Representative passed it with minor amendments on August 25, 2004.
After many twists, turns and postponements, the Senate unanimously passed the bill on November 15, 2006 and in February 2007, the NASS constituted the Conference Committee on the Freedom of Information Bill to harmonise the two versions of the bill passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. On February 14, 2007 the committee concluded the harmonisation of the two versions of the bill.
The harmonized bill was passed to the then President Olusegun Obasanjo for his assent but President Obasanjo claimed he did not received the bill. While the dispute lasted, the life of the fifth National Assembly expired giving way to yet another one that eventually passed the bill for Jonathan’s assent.
This time, Media Rights Agenda learnt a lesson and rather than wait for one Chamber to debate and pass the bill before taking it to another Chamber, it ensured that the bill ran concurrently at both the House of Representatives and the Senate. And so the FOI Bill went through the legislative processes at both Chambers of the sixth National Assembly simultaneously.
The bill initially suffered some inexplicable delays in the House of Representatives where member stepped down the bill several times without reason. On the other hand, the Senate Committee on Information watered down the provisions of the bill after the public hearing which the Senate held on June 2, 2008. As a result, there was a standstill on the legislative progress of the bill at both Chambers.
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Coalition however continued its advocacy efforts using a combination of different methods, including one-on-one visits, telephone calls, text messages etc.
The FOI Coalition’s tenacity paid off when the House of Representatives on February 24, 2011 unanimously passed the Bill, followed by the Senate on March 16, 2011. In compliance with the Standing Orders of both chambers, the Senate named its Conference Committee members on March 16, 2011 while the House of Representatives designated its members on May 11, 2011.
The composition of the Conference Committee that saw the successful passage of the bill includes: Senator Ayogu Eze, Chairperson; Honourable Henry Seriake Dickson, Co-Chairperson; Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba (SAN), Senator Adamu Talba, Senator Anthony Manzo, Senator Kamorudeen Adedibu, Senator Otaru Ohize, Honourable Ahmed Wadada, Honourable Mohammed Sani Takori, Honourable Patrick Ikhariale, Honourable Nkem Abonta, and Honourable Abike Dabiri-Erewa.
At an earlier meeting of the committee, which took place on Thursday, May 19, 2011, the Committee harmonized the differences between both versions of the Bill, adopting provisions which strongly protect the right of access to information and ensure the effectiveness of the Law.
The House of Representatives and the Senate both adopted the harmonized bill on May 24 paving the way for the legal department of the National Assembly to make a clean copy of the harmonized bill which was presented to President Jonathan and which he eventually signed.