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Public Hearing on Freedom of Information Bill Postponed to April 12

 

ABUJA, WEDNESDAY, MARCH 23, 2005:  The public hearing on the Freedom of Information Bill scheduled to take place at the Senate yesterday, March 22, has been postponed to April 12, 2005. 

 

Nearly five hours after the scheduled time of 12.00 noon, when the public hearing was supposed to begin, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Information, Senator Tawar Wada, announced to scores of disappointed stakeholders that the public hearing had to be postponed due to the crisis that had engulfed the Senate over allegations that some members of the National Assembly had received a N55 million bribe from the now dismissed Minister of Education, Professor Fabian Osuji, to ensure the passage of the Ministry’s budget for 2005.

 

Some of those present, including the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Press Council (NPC), Mr. Godwin Omole, who represented the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Chief Chukwuemeka Chikelu; the President of the Newspapers Proprietors Association of Nigeria (NPAN), Mr. Ray Ekpu; and the publisher of the Punch newspapers, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, attempted to persuade the Committee chairman to allow the hearing hold despite the late hour, saying they were prepared to stay as long as necessary and that the time allocated to each speaker could be reduced to save time.

 

Although he initially agreed to continue with the public hearing, Senator Wada later said it would not be possible to do so.  He explained that the public hearing ought to be declared open by the Senate President, Senator Adolphus Wabara, or another principal officer of the Senate. He said the Senate President was “not in a frame of mind” to come and declare the public hearing open and that he (Senator Wada) had not been able to get any other principal officer of the Senate to perform the function.  Besides, he insisted that there was no point in carrying out a shoddy exercise on the Bill as “what is worth doing at all is worth doing well”.

 

Those who had indicated their intentions to make presentations yesterday included Mr. Omole, who came to represent the Minister of Information and National Orientation; Mr. Ekpu; Chief Ogunshola; the Bayelsa State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Oronto Douglas; Programme Coordinator at the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), Mr. Maxwell Kadiri; the Head of External Cooperation at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ms Juliet Ume-Ezeoke; Professor Pat Utomi, Director of the Lagos Business School; former Kano State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Alhaji A. B. Mahmoud (SAN); Mr. Bankole Bello, an Accountant with the firm of Ighodalo and Associates in Lagos; and Mr. Tunji Olaopa, the Deputy Director of the Bureau for Civil Service Reform.

 

Others were the Head of Information at the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Mr. Owei Lakemfa; the Coordinator of the Freedom of Information Coalition, Mr. Osaro Odemwingie; the Secretary of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE), Ms Angela Agoawike; the President of the National Association of Nigerian Traders (NANTS), Mr. Ken Ukoha; the National Coordinator of the Zero Corruption Coalition (ZCC), Ms Lilian Ekeanyanwu; the Executive Director of Media Rights Agenda (MRA), Mr. Edetaen Ojo; Mr. Yusuf Kadiri, a Senior Associate in the law firm of Jackson, Etti and Edu in Lagos; and Dr. Mustapha Hussein, a Islamic scholar at the Bayero University, Kano and head of the Centre for Human Rights in Islam (CHRI) in Lagos. 

 

Long before 12.00 noon, stakeholders had gathered at the Senate Hearing Room 1, where the public hearing was originally advertised to hold.  Shortly before 12.00 noon, the Secretary to the Senate Information Committee, Mr. I.E.F. Edobor, announced that the time had been shifted to 1.00pm as there were a number of meetings going on to douse the “tension” in the Senate.

 

A short while later, some Senate staff announced that the leaders of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) would be holding a caucus meeting at Senate Hearing Room 1.  The venue of the public hearing was then shifted to Senate Hearing Room 3.

 

At about 1.30pm, the Committee Chairman, Senator Wada, came to address the stakeholders gathered, explaining that because of the events going on, members of the Information Committee would not be available to sit at the public hearing until 3.00pm as he had to attend caucus meetings going on and brief the media on the developments thereafter.  He pleaded for patience and understanding.

 

At about 3.45 pm, Senator Wada returned with the deputy Chair of the Committee, Senator Rufus Spiff, and another Committee member, Senator Usman K. Umar.

 

A brief debate ensued on whether the public hearing should go on as scheduled or be postponed.  Following the insistence of the stakeholders present that it should continue, Senator Wada initially agreed to go on.  He then left the room saying he was going to get the Senate President or another principal officer of the Senate to come and declare the hearing open.

 

When he returned, he said the members of the Committee had consulted among themselves and with other Senators and had come to the “painful” decision that the best was to postpone the public hearing.  He said it had been impossible to get any principal officer of the Senate to come and declare the hearing open and that even journalists covering the National Assembly were distracted by the unfolding events and would not be able to give adequate coverage to the “very important” hearing.

 

Senator Wada assured the audience that the Bill remained very popular within the Senate as it apparently was with members of the public, but that it was imperative for the Senate to seek and obtain public inputs into the Bill before proceeding further.

 

He said rushing ahead with the public hearing under the present circumstances was not wise, insisting that “whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.”

 

Senator Wada apologized for the situation and the inconvenience that those present had suffered saying that it was not intentional and was not borne out of disrespect as the names of some of those present are names they have been hearing for many years which could make many people to “tremble”.

 

He said a new date for the public hearing would be advertised, but Chief Ogunshola suggested that the new date should be fixed immediately so that the stakeholders could start preparing towards it.  It was then agreed that the public hearing should now take place on April 12 to give time for fresh advertisements to be placed in the media about the new dates and allow for adequate preparations.

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