Sunday 8 November 2009

Nigeria: FOI Bill languishes in myopic ignorance

Breakfast at Café Beaubourg

It is quite strange that anytime I am in Paris I have my breakfast at Café Beaubourg [1] which is just beside Georges Pompidou Centre [2]. It is a bit expensive, but I take a table on the 1st floor with a view overlooking the grounds in front of front of the centre and watch the world go by as I tuck into the grande brunch, half watching, half meditating.

I have never been in the centre ever but I bring an interest quote from Georges Pompidou who was the president of the Republic of France from 1969 to 1974 and in what smacks of republican mirth the President of French Republic is also holds the title Co-Prince of Andorra [3].

Pompidou on politicians

From the Collins Dictionary of Quotations (1995) because somehow the web had failed to document and attribute this to the man, he says, “A statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of a nation. A politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service.

I must observe than when applied universally to the context of statesmanship in Nigeria, there is none of the former; all our politicians place the nation at their service.

FOI Bill going nowhere

This is exemplified in the non-passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill which has languished in the legislative and executive annals for the best part of 10 years. It was passed by the National Assembly in 2003 but the then President refused to grant his assent to the bill.

So, recently, at a World Bank Training Forum for Journalists a representative of the National Assembly Ahman Pategi (PDP/Kwara State) suggested the bill may not pass in this parliamentary term [4] which ends in 2011.

Interestingly, the chairperson of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission, Farida Waziri has urged the National Assembly to speadily (sic) pass the NOI bill [5] {Come on NeXT do some proof-reading and spell-checking} suggesting the “need to put in place a conscientious system for the gathering and dissemination of information.

She almost misses the point just as the politicians are utterly myopic if not ignorant of what an FOI bill provides. They have concentrated on the premise that the bill will give journalists untrammelled access to all sort of information most of which would expose their personal nefarious activities rather than hold them accountable to public scrutiny for the supposed service they are being paid to offer as a dividend of democracy.

Not just about journalism

Indeed, the bill was originally sponsored by representatives who were once journalists but that should hardly be the core of the bill or the root of the fears of the politicians, we already have guerrilla new agencies as Sahara Reporters [6]and PointBlankNews (Caution: Gruesome graphical content) [7] who get all that information anyhow.

People do read mainstream news channels and also review the guerrilla sites to get a general feel of what is going on, the non-passage of the bill will not stop the outrageous, sensational and downright deplorable from being published.

Editors have condemned non passage of information bill [8] with a whole range of statements expressing disappointment, but the issue is very simple.

Dummies guide to an FOI Bill

A FOI Bill requires that all official and government business be properly documented and archived in some generally accessible manner. When documented, each branch of government starting with the legislature which enacts laws of archiving and access, the executive should have a set of security classes for the documented information and levels of privilege necessary to gain access whilst the judiciary can adjudicate as to whether a request is legitimate or not.

This extends the remit of democracy where any legal citizen or interest group can request information regarding the working of our democracy which sometimes might involve activities deemed to be inimical to good governance or corrupt activities which need to be brought to light. It is definitely not a Freedom of Press Bill, which has completely different objectives.

Fear Not!

Like we are always told by our politicians when debating privacy bills, they who have nothing to hide should have nothing to fear, it goes without saying that politicians who have nothing to hide should really fear nothing of the FOI Bill, rather they should see it as another channel for making democracy more accessible to the electorate.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the Re-Branding Nigeria exercise in this context and inform the Minister of Information that if she really wants a laudable cause to bolster she ever decreasing stature and respectability, this is one bill she should latch onto and push through the National Assembly before 2011.

But, if politicians think the nation is at their service, well, we might well continue to pay them to feather their beds and self-interests as they have so successfully done all the time.


[1] Café Beaubourg

[2] Centre Pompidou - Art culture musée expositions cinémas conférences débats spectacles concerts

[3] List of Co-Princes of Andorra - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[4] N-Assembly won’t pass FOI Bill, says Rep | Vanguard

[5] Waziri urges speady passage of FOI Bill |

[6] SR Headlines – Sahara Reporters

[7] Pointblanknews, just the news

[8] Editors condemn non passage of information bill |

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