On May 28, 2011, Nigeria's president Goodluck Jonathan signed into law a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, heralding the conclusion of arguably the most exciting legislative odyssey in postcolonial Nigeria.
The FOI advocacy was even more exciting because it originated as a citizen-led demand and was for the most part led by ordinary folks whose extraordinary resilience in the face of serial reversals ultimately earned the respect of good friends amongst the high and mighty. A story with many subplots, the tale of how the FOI bill became law awaits full treatment elsewhere.
Ultimately, though, it was a tale about how citizens—even those who don’t know one another—can become friends in a common cause.
It began late in 1993. Few would have been willing then to give what ultimately became the FOI movement a snowball’s chance in hell of making it into the law books. General Sani Abacha was in power and transparent government was not his thing. To drive the point home, he sported trademark sunshades, even at night.
Edetaen Ojo provided the spark. He was in search of an issue to define the niche of the Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a young organization for the defense of free expression rights, which he led. Naturally, he looked to a network of friends. Edet (as he’s better known) enlisted the once mighty and now sadly mangled Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), and the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Lagos.
I helped by providing the background synthesis of FOI laws from around the world, and a framework for the drafting. Tunde Fagbohunlu, then a strapping lawyer with the firm Olisa, Agbakoba & Associates, and now senior advocate of Nigeria, did the first draft, showing the skills that would make him one of the most outstanding lawyers of his or any other generation in Nigeria.
The core proposals from that draft, remarkably, have survived largely intact through the many years of bargaining and negotiation. We were all friends.
Tunde’s draft went through several reviews. He was always willing to revise, update, edit. In addition to Edet, Abdul Oroh, a future federal legislator, then executive director of CLO, and Eze Anaba, now the deputy editor of Vanguard, were very helpful early friends.
In May 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office as a civilian president. For most of the previous two decades of his retirement from both government and the military, the General had campaigned loudly for good governance in Africa, if necessary with the help of juju.
We believed him and requested him early in June 1999 to transmit the draft FOI bill to the National Assembly as an executive measure. He declined, advising MRA instead to do so if they wished.
It was friendly advice, and too good an offer to turn town. Thus began what would become a riveting legislative learning curve for everyone.
In the then House of Representatives, the bill was sponsored by three more friends: Jerry Ugokwe, Nduka Irabor and Tony Anyanwu. They were to be joined as champions of the bill by Nze Chidi Duru. They were terrific to work with.
Maxwell Kadiri, then a young lawyer employed by the MRA and now with the Open Society Justice Initiative, arguably the most impressive legislative lobbyist in the country, became the lead legislative advocate for the bill. He would become the principal recruiter of friends for FOI in Nigeria.
Four years later, Maxwell would be joined in this by Ene Enonche, a young mass communication graduate from Ahmadu Bello University whose father was a retired Colonel.
Every new friend helped. With Maxwell and Ene, we later recruited Ledum Bhule, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s niece and an outstanding young lawyer. Supported by Edetaen and myself, these three young people gave Nigeria the FOI Act. Let’s put it this way: without Maxwell, Ene and Ledum, it would not have happened. Towards the end, they spent nights in the National Assembly to make sure it happened.
The Right to Know Initiative grew naturally out of this. We called it R2K.
Our first lessons in the intricacies of the process came from then Clerk of the House, Yomi Ogunyomi.
The bill excited strong passions and strong suspicions. It failed to make much progress through the 4th Parliament (1999-2003) but won over several more enthusiastic friends.
By the 5th Parliament, this community of friends had grown to include many more across party lines and in both Chambers. On the House side, some of the more prominent supporters included Usman Bugaje, Haruna Yerima, Uche Onyeagucha, Abike Dabiri, as well as Austin Opara and Aminu Masari.
The last two were deputy speaker and speaker respectively. Abdul Oroh, one of the original birthers of the bill, had by 2003 become a federal legislator and a natural ally.
On the Senate side, Victor Ndoma-Egba, Comrade Uche Chukwumerije, Julius Ucha and Tawar Wada were quite vocal and articulate. Inatimi Spiff, a one-term senator from Bayelsa State was remarkably disciplined and constructive in improving the Bill. Kenechukwu Nnamani, then senate president, was also a supporter.
All of these and more worked hard to pass the bill and ensured it was transmitted to a President who, by this time was preoccupied with prolonging himself in office. First he denied receiving the bill, but when confronted showed too much knowledge of a law he had not read. Finally he admitted to having read it and swore on the gods of his ancestors that he would never sign “that thing.”
And so another try bit the dust. But FOI had made more friends. It is difficult to say specifically when the FOI advocacy went viral. Friends were busy recruiting friends everywhere. The FOI coalition electronic listserve became a cacophony. Everyone wanted to be counted in support of the FOI bill.
There were redoubtable supporters everywhere, especially in the media. Reuben Abati at the Guardian weighed in repeatedly in his column, with more support coming from publishers including Ajibola Ogunshola at The Punch, and Nduka Obaigbena at Thisday, and Dele Olojede at NEXT, up until the presidential assent finally came.
From the Bar, Balarabe Mahmoud, senior advocate of Nigeria and former attorney-general of Kano State was creative in improving the Bill; Boma Ozobia, president of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association worked her Rolodex from airport terminals around the world if necessary. We lost count of the circle of friends when we woke up one morning to read that Ibrahim Babangida had called for the passage of the FOI bill. We treasured that.
In the end, the biggest friends proved to be the really big fish. Ita Ennang was a wizard of the rules of the House of Representatives. He deserves his place in the Senate. Ayogu Eze in the Senate and Dickson Seriaki in the House managed final concurrence deftly. Speaker Dimeji Bankole and Senate President, David Mark, found the right side of history with astute judgement and President Goodluck Jonathan set the seal on it.
There were, of course, friends inside very high places who would prefer to remain anonymous. They know themselves.
But who can forget the friends we lost along the way?
Bankole Aluko, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, co-founder of Aluko & Oyebode, one of the biggest commercial law firms in Nigeria, whom we tragically lost in his prime, vetted the initial draft of the Bill and always prioritized work or appearance at a legislative hearing in support of the Bill over his paid casework.
Tony Anyanwu, one of the first friends a Bill could have in Parliament, also lost in his prime; and Tawar Umbi Wada, a towering legislative operator who was always the ultimate loyal friend.
Kole, Tony, Tawar, I hope you’ve heard: Yes, we did it—for you!