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Freedom of Information Bill Scales Second Reading in the Senate

By Osaro Odemwingie

Coordinator, Freedom of Information Coalition

 

ABUJA, TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2005: The Freedom of Information Bill scaled a major hurdle today at the Senate as it sailed through the second reading with strong support from most senators.  The Senate, which concluded debates on the Bill, passed it for the second reading and referred it to the Senate Committee on Information to conduct a more detailed examination of the Bill and report back to the full house in three weeks.

 

Unlike last Thursday’s proceedings where sharp differences characterized the comments on the Bill, most of the senators who spoke during today’s discussions described it as a Bill whose time has come and stressed that it must be passed by the Senate.

 

Last Thursday, the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Dalhatu Tafida, who introduced the Bill on the floor of the Senate had cautioned the Senate against passing the bill, arguing that it could open the country to a national security crisis.

 

Ironically, a majority of the Senators who spoke at today’s session called for further strengthening of the Bill and a reduction of the number of exemptions in it.

 

Among contributors to the debate today were Senator Uche Chukwumerije (Abia North), Senator Olusola Ogunbanjo (Ogun East), Senator Victor Ndoma-Egbe (Cross River Central), Senator Usman Umar (Kano South), Senator Yushau Anka (Zamfara West), Senator David Mark (Benue South) and Senator Ken Nnamani (Enugu East).

 

Kicking off the debate, Senator Chukwumerije noted that the Bill is an important legislation which will enhance democracy.

 

He said: “Information is the harbinger of knowledge and without knowledge a nation will perish,” arguing that he was particularly supportive of the Bill because it will expand the freedom of individual citizens to insist on a clearer demarcation of official rights and as well enhance the voting rights of citizens.

 

The Senator added that the bill will also help to instill self-discipline in public officers. He, however, identified a number of sections which had typographical errors and some that need strengthening, including some of the sections were grounds of exemptions are listed.

 

Senator Ogunbanjo spoke in similar vein. He noted that while in other countries access to public information is considered a legal right, the reverse is the case in Nigeria where he said it is considered an affront.

 

He noted that passing the Bill “will renew our faith in democracy” and disagreed with the position held by Senator Tafida, saying “such views are among some faulty assumptions that people keep promoting in Nigeria.”

 

Alluding to the GSM services, he noted that some top government officials in Nigeria had promoted that view that such a development was not possible in Nigeria but added that they have been proven wrong.

 

Senator Ndoma-Egbe, in his contribution, noted that the Bill is “well-intentioned, timely, of far reaching implications, revolutionary and has very significant impact on the polity.”

 

He said the Bill will free information hitherto locked away under bureaucracy and the Official Secrets Act and that this would lead to a more informed public. This, he added, will enable members of the public to make more informed contributions to national debate and reduce instances of rumor and cynicism by members of the public against government officials.

 

Senator Ndoma-Egbe argued that Chapter 2 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria makes it a constitutional obligation on the Senate to pass the Bill, adding that only three categories of persons should not be accountable, namely God, madmen and children.

 

Senator Umaru, however differed, arguing that a balance must be struck between the need to have a Freedom of Information law and the need to protect national security. Senator Anka supported Senator Umaru’s view.

 

But Senate President, Senator Adolphus Wabara, told them that “the fear of death should not deter us from going on a justified war”.

 

Reinforcing the point by the Senate President, Senator Mark noted: “The fact that women go through labour pain at birth does not stop men from impregnating them.” Amid laughter from senators, he added that the Bill is deserving of the passage by the Senate.

 

Rounding off the debate, Senator Nnamani praised the initiators of the Bill for their foresight and said it would enhance democracy.

 

He, however, observed that the exemptions clauses were too many, pointing in particular to the list and types of personal information exempted from the general right of access under Section 16 of the Bill

 

The Senate President subsequently put the issue to a voice vote and the senators overwhelmingly voted for it, resulting in its passage through the second reading.

 

The Senate then referred the Bill to the Committee on Information and directed it to report back to the full house in three weeks.

 

When the Bill returns from the Information Committee, it will go through the third and final reading at the Senate, during which it may be passed or rejected.  If passed at the third reading, the Bill will be sent to the President for assent, after which it will become Law.
 

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