After dragging their feet for 11 years, members of the National Assembly recently passed the Freedom of Information bill. Till the bitter end, many legislators left little doubt that they were not in love with this small (but potentially significant) step taken in the direction of accountability and transparency. After using all manner of specious arguments to torpedo the bill, the hugely overpaid, greatly under-worked lawmakers came round to the measure, it seemed, kicking and screaming.
At any rate, the Senate seemed far less enthusiastic than the House of Representatives. In fact, the House passed its version of the bill, widely regarded as stauncher, on February 24. The Senate waited until last week to okay a different, reportedly softer version. As if to buttress its vestigial misgivings about the bill, the senators played a game of semantics. They re-baptized the bill, changing its name to the Right of Information.
What’s in a name, you wonder? The rhetoric of the Senate’s leadership suggested that they wanted, above all, to stress that this was no victory for the mass media. So they gave their draft a name that emphasized the right of every Nigerian, not just professional journalists, to gain access to official information and documents.
A clause in the bill affirms that “every citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has a legally enforceable right to, and shall, on application, be given access to any information or record under the control of a government or public institution or private companies performing public functions, provided the disclosure of such information or release of such record(s) shall not compromise national security.”
David Mark, the ex-military man who presides over the Senate, was eager to underscore two points. “This bill,” he said, “will make information freely available, provide for public access to public records and information and protect public records and information to the extent that it will be consistent with the public interest and protection of personal privacy. It protects serving public officers from adverse consequences of disclosing certain official information and established procedures.” Then he added: “At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me say once more that this bill is not a media bill and when the media want to hijack the bill and give an impression that we don’t want to pass it because people in public offices have something to hide is wrong. With this, we now have the opportunity to tell the media to tell us their source of information, because they also will always say that they cannot disclose their source of information. With this bill, everybody will now get information freely and I think they are very much aware of this bit of it.”
Mr. Mark’s words conceal – or, indeed reveal – a threat. The man has never been a great fan of the FOI idea. So what is he going to do now that the prevailing mood in the country has compelled the legislature to pass the bill? Mr. Mark and others of his mindset appear determined to put a damper on the process. Which explains Mr. Mark’s emphasis on the media’s obligation to confess their source of information. It’s akin to boosting accountability in one breath and, in another, issuing a barely veiled threat to those most likely to seize the opportunities offered by the new environment. The Nigerian public will be equipped with the legal powers to obtain information and scrutinize the actions of public officials. Yet, the enemies of access to information must be counting on the guile and other deceptive skills of public officials. At any rate, Mr. Mark knows that any official identified by the media as the discloser of information that exposes the misdeeds of top members of Nigeria’s “lootocracy” would have hell to pay.
Mr. Mark’s strictures were tame compared to the hectoring posture of Mohammed Abba-Aji, a former senator who now functions as special adviser to Goodluck Jonathan on legislative business. Mr. Abba-Aji did not hide his disdain for the bill, or for Nigerians who would insist on prying into the manner in which their affairs are managed. He openly encouraged the Senate to reject the bill, and pledged that – should senators ignore his counsel – he’d prevail on Mr. Jonathan to veto the bill.
In the barrage of criticism that attended Mr. Abba-Aji’s quixotic pronouncements, Mr. Jonathan moved quickly to distance himself from his legislative liaison. Abba-Aji’s thoughtless remarks should earn him a sack, not just a rebuke, however ringing. People like him belong in a dungeon of the infamous, not in a generously paid public position.
The FOI – or, in senatorial parlance, the ROI – is a good tool. But its ultimate effectiveness is going to depend on the alertness, skillfulness and sense of determination displayed by its end users. Once the bills are harmonized by the two chambers and signed by Mr. Jonathan, the law will empower Nigerians to ask questions and – with some greater odds – receive answers. With a tool like the FOI, citizens could have asked Mr. Tony Anenih, a former Works Minister, what happened to more than 300 billion naira his ministry was supposed to spend on roads. And former President Olusegun Obasanjo would have had to disclose how much, exactly, he and his cohorts sucked out of Nigeria in the name of power projects.
Nobody should underrate the resistance of public officials to any requisitions for information. Nor should we forget that there are enough corrupt and shameless judges to throw roadblocks, for a bribe and at the behest of public officials, calculated to frustrate snooping citizens. Besides, the Nigerian media are infected with practitioners who are ever willing, in consideration of monetary or some other inducement, to avert their eyes when public officials exploit their offices for private gain.
The point is simple. The FOI (or ROI) will make a difference, or not, depending on the vigilance, or lack thereof, of citizens. If citizens elect to snooze rather than probe, or the press to dilly and dally rather than scrutinize and report, or the judiciary to serve the interests of thieftains rather than upholding the right of the public to hold public officials to account – then we will merely have another infertile law in the books.
Nigerians ought to be pushing for passage of other laws and constitutional amendments that starve rogue politicians of the opportunities to pocket funds with little or no hindrance. One of the reasons why unscrupulous elements mobilize all means to corner a gubernatorial post is their freedom to siphon huge monthly allocations amorphously named security votes. Why in the world should a governor or president be entrusted with sole disbursement of millions of dollars each month in the alleged name of security?
What security? With all the security votes gobbled each month by the president and state governors, why are Nigerians still beset by incessant bloodletting in Jos, Maiduguri and elsewhere? Why are many southeastern, Niger Delta and other states scourged by kidnappings? Security votes, to the extent that they are necessary, must go to equip and empower the police and other agencies that are mandated to fight crime. Instead of letting a few governors fritter away security votes, the funds should be invested in revamping the obsolete, professional inept police force.
Nor should Nigerians continue to permit the capacious scope of the immunity clause in their constitution. It’s a time-honored convention that holders of certain high offices – among them, the president and governors – are shielded from prosecution for acts they perform in the normal course of discharging the demands of their office. But trust Nigerian politicians to take a sound principle and stretch it to absurd levels. What justifies the practice of gra
nting immunity to Nigerian presidents and governors for all acts, including grave criminal ones?
Former President Bill Clinton went through a legal process when he was accused of demeaning his office by having sex with Monica Lewinsky, an intern – and then lying about it. Numerous American governors have been marched off by the FBI in handcuffs, tried and jailed for acts of corruption. But when a Nigerian governor is seriously implicated in acts of corruption, he is said to be beyond prosecution on account of holding the office he’s betrayed and disesteemed. Rather than face any form of legal jeopardy, such a governor is often included on the rolls of recipients of national honors.
The open-ended idea of immunity is awful, a scandal with no redeeming feature. We would do well to expunge that oddity from the constitution. That action would send a clear message to rogues that acts of criminal impunity are not part of a president or governor’s job specification.