At the time the imbroglio was raging on those disclosures, a workshop was going on in Abuja on the Freedom of Information which was organized by Media Right Agenda (MRA) with the support of UK Government’s Global Opportunities Fund. Present at the programme were representatives of EFCC, ICPC, Nigerian Police, the military, Code of Conducts Bureau, Human Right Commission, National Press Centre, INEC, Security Printing Coy, Judiciary and a host of other sensitive stakeholders. I was in attendance to realize what Nigeria misses for not passing the law of FOI.
The participants at the workshop might not require much case studies going by the development in the polity. As a section to the conflict doles out a litany of indictments, the other party rains down torrents of allegations and accusations to the curious populace. The reality is that the public is overwhelmed by the magnitude of hard facts and official documents that have wrapped up the media; instead of being amused they are bemused and in suspense of what may happen next.
Though there is a provision in the 1999 Constitution on the principles of freedom of expression, it requires enabling legislations for freedom (free-exchange) of information for citizens to exercise these rights. The Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill is a necessary instrument required to get pure and substantiated political and financial disclosures on decisions of public institutions for the benefit of the public. The Bill which has been in the National Assembly for some years seeks to provide a right to public information or records kept by government, public institutions and/or private bodies carrying out public functions for citizens and non-citizens. This will promote transparency and accountability in all the sectors. The legislation is not a strange phenomenon as other countries have operated it through decades like Sweden since 1766, USA 1966, and France 1978 amongst other advanced countries. In Africa we have countries like South Africa in 2000 as an example amongst others.
The delay in the legislation in most African countries, was as a result of the culture of secrecy that prevails across the public service as a reflection of the legacy of the Official Secret Act of colonial masters, which regulates and regiments the civil service in such a way that openness is usually sanctioned. Also, as could be observed, one-party states behave secretively to protect political leaders against stiff opposition and rebellion from their citizenries. As vital as access to information is, a culture of secrecy in a democratic government, negates the spirit of openness, accountability and transparency.
The archaic Law of Secrecy which is deployed to reprimand and sanction lesser mortals (Civil servants/workers) may need to be revisited to reflect the digital age and democratic norms. In fact such secrecy laws call for amendments as documents that had been classified as TOP SECRET have ended up in Maisuya joint and Akara seller to wrap customers’ meals, as well as the antics of officers who are in the habit of using strangers to type and photocopy confidential materials at business centres across-the-road.
As advantageous as Freedom of Information is in other countries there are legitimate exemptions to avoid interference with judicial process, its abuse for criminality and subversion of nation’s security. Some notable exemptions include those bordering on defence, international affairs, law enforcement, commercially sensitive information (patent) and personal information. The commercially sensitive information does not exempt financial institutions from public enquiry and scrutiny. In fact with the success of the consolidation in the banking sector in Nigeria, the citizen may have the right to know the operations and dealings of banks in that exercise. Clear pictures of privatization processes and the identity of major players may satisfy the curiosity of the citizenry. From the political angle too, the citizen may be delighted to know the sources of funding of political parties, campaign rallies and their statements of account since they all serve the public interest. Even states may be compelled to give detail account of their expenditures on public and private causes and on such flimsies as congratulatory messages, chieftaincy titles and flamboyant honorary awards to enable the citizen measure their relevance to their welfare.
Since the Federal Government has been proactive in publishing monthly disbursements from the Federation Account, it is desirable that the tiers also give details of their expenditures to avoid suspicions, campaigns of calumny and denials from likely opponents. Without even prompting, the citizens require full information on how they are represented and governed.
The very nature of democratic government implies accountability and transparency, a free press and other democratic checks. Interestingly, Nigeria as a developing nation has free and independent press. Its media have successfully exposed corruption in higher places and remained undaunted in the face of victimization, politicization and sentiment expressed in some quarters against their professional stubbornness. Nigerians are now more comfortable and believe in the information from the impartial press than from opposition politicians who are usually one-sided in their attempt to nail those in the authority. Therefore the media may be given unfettered access to information for the benefit of the citizenry. With the strong investigative journalism in Nigeria and the likelihood that the media may further be strengthened by passage of the bill to expose corrupt practices, the fear and risk of discovery will ultimately reduce inordinate tendencies of institutions and officers to vices.
Though one of the sanctions in the bill is jail term for destruction and falsification of documents in an attempt to protect vested interest or commit fraud, the FOI Bill in the National Assembly has no provision for an agency to monitor its implementation. In other nations they assign statutory roles for ombudsmen to investigate complaints by citizens against public institutions. Ombudsman is independent in monitoring the application of FOI for the promotion of access to information by investigating complaints, mediating between the seeker of information and the institution concerned and also has power to enforce rulings. It would be desirable for our legislator to insert this provision for instituting the regulator.
We are indeed in a very interesting period which calls for the support of FOI bill which recognizes the citizen’s right to know, promote war against corruption and sustain economic development. If activities of public institutions are subjected to scrutiny, it will be easier to measure their efforts against their goals and our expectations. Just as the media provides cover for whistleblowers as reliable sources, FOI would guarantee their maximum protection to further promote openness and transparency in service delivery. It is when the public is adequately informed, truthfully and honestly on services that they would feel the impact and be proud to identify with the institutions.
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Daily Trust September 27, Nigerian Tribune September 27, New Nigerian September 28, The Guardian October 2, Daily Sun October 3, Leadership October 3, Daily Champion October 3 and Thisday October 24, 2006