Nigeria's leader, Goodluck Jonathan, on Saturday signed into law the Freedom of Information Act as passed by the National Assembly. That was one day after a copy of the bill was delivered to him by the Clerk of the National Assembly, Salisu Maikasuwa.
In theory, the 18 -page document has now become the official freedom of information law by which Nigerian citizens can seek access to official information, but it remains to be tested.
The bill, which first made an appearance in the National Assembly in 1999, languished there in the years that followed as legislators squabbled over it and President Olusegun Obasanjo expressed open hostility to it. It made some progress early in 2007 and was passed by both chambers, but it was then vetoed by President Obasanjo.
After Obasanjo’s departure, the bill finally achieved some traction despite many other hurdles, and was finally passed by the National Assembly last week by the lawmakers who had watered it down considerably. Among other things, they claimed it would compromise national security.
In a joint statement today in Abuja, the Right to Know initiative, Media Rights Agenda and Open Society Foundations celebrated the FOI law as a victory for democracy, transparency, justice and development.
"With the new law, Nigerians finally have vital tools to uncover facts, fight corruption and hold officials and institutions accountable," said Ms Ene Enonche, Coordinator of the Right to Know initiative.
Her enthusiasm was shared by Maxwell Kadiri of the Open Society Justice Initiative. "The new law will profoundly change how government works in Nigeria,” he said. “Now we can use the oxygen of information and knowledge to breathe life into governance. It will no longer be business as usual."
The new law is a testament to the staying power of civil society, demonstrating how committed groups can work together to ensure laws which support the rights of the people.
Jonathan’s quick assent to the bill follows earlier indications he had given that he would sign it once it came to him. In a statement in Abuja today, O.J. Abuah, who is of the Office of the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, said that while the objective of the Act is to make public records and information more freely available, it is also “to also protect public records and information to the extent consistent with the public interest and the protection of personal privacy.”
He pointed out that the new law would protect serving public officers from any adverse consequences of disclosing certain kinds of official information without authorization.
Section 4 of the law provides that when a public institution receives an application for information, it shall make such information available to the applicant within seven days. If such an institution feels that such information cannot be granted, it is to inform the applicant in writing stating the reasons for such a decision and the section of the law under which the refusal is made.