Sunday, November 1, 2009

Democracy, Anti-terrorism Bill and Freedom of Information

Barely few days after President Umar Yar’Adua presented the government “Anti-terrorism Bill” to the National Assembly, the US President, Barack Obama publicly released the list of visitors to the White House since his assumption of office.

Whist I will not dwell on the bolts and nuts of the proposed Anti-terrorism Bill, there is a clause within the Bill that I find very disturbing to say the least. Section 1(2) of the Bill defines an act of terrorism as “that which may seriously damage a country or an international organisation, ……and dissemination of information or information materials in any form or mode whether true or false calculated to cause panic, evoke violence or intimidate a government, person or group of persons”. In the absence of any legislation that guarantees a citizen’s free access or right to information, what can be defined as ‘true or false’ information?

Is it therefore not intriguing that when government of civilised nations are working towards ensuring greater transparency in the way they conduct their business, the Nigerian government is more interested in silencing dissenting views through a proxy Anti-terrorism Bill.

According the US media reports, the White House put some 480 visitor records online on Friday 30 October in response to specific requests for information. The newly-released data covers a period from 20 January to 31 July and includes about meetings with Mr Obama and his aides. As expected the list included celebrities, party donors and political lobbyists. For me, the name on the list is not even the issue. It is the fact that, for the first time in history, an American President publicly released the list of his visitors. I find it quite remarkable and a major step forward in ensuring probity, accountability and transparency.

On reading the news, the question I asked myself was, will any Nigerian President ever do such a thing? And if they did, what names can we expect to feature prominently on the visitors list? Who are the President’s visitors? Who’s been travelling in and out of the Aso Rock to meet the President’s aides? In a corrupt-ridden and lawless society such as ours, we can expect corrupt Ex-Governors and Niger Delta militants to feature prominently. But to put it rightly, the answer to these questions lies in the proposed Freedom of Information Bill.

Unfortunately the passage of this FOI Bill has remained protracted since the Obasanjo administration. The Bill has been travelling back and forth between the National Assembly and the Executive since 1999, and there seems to be no end in sight for the current impasse.

The Freedom of Information Act ensures the public's right to access government records and it is an important component of ensuring the government's accountability to the people it serves. If the government is knows that the public will find out about its ill-conceived ideas, it will prevents those ideas from being put forward.

There is no doubt that secrecy that shrouds government activities has done nothing but encourage corruption and maladministration. The lack of transparency in the way government conducts its business makes it very difficult for the masses to hold it accountable. More often than not, the masses have to rely on a handful of investigative journalists for revelations on dubious government activities. And when such news are reported, the government is always quick to classify them as ‘threat to nation’s security’.

A typical example was President Yar’Adua medical trip (oh! Umrah) to Saudi Arabia in 2008. With passage of FOI Bill, it will become harder for government officials to ‘sell a dummy’ to the masses. Whilst the President state of health can be considered to be personal, I wouldn’t see any reason why the masses cannot demand to know how many times he has travelled overseas for medical check-ups and how much of tax payers’ is spent on such trips.

We wake up to read about award of major contracts and sale of state-owned assets to government cronies on the front pages of newspaper. We read everyday about oil blocks been auctioned to anonymous persons. The Federal Executive Council feeds us monthly with news of multi-billion dollar contracts. However, we are never told anything about the contract procurement process. Neither are we told about the number of companies that have bided for such contract. We don’t know what criteria are been adopted in the award of oil blocks. The FEC also never bothers to advise the public on the progress of these multi-billion dollar contracts.

The hallmarks of good democratic governance are probity, accountability and transparency. And it is right to say that free access and right to information are an important ingredients for achieving and sustaining a viable democratic structure.



well, it isn't surprising is it? This coming from a President that had bloggers arrested, shut down a tv channel and sued journalists for libel. Sadly, I am not surprised. There has been an effort to further clamp down on information in that country and it is simply a shame that we are sitting by and letting it happen because we are all so focused on a thousand other things.

Nice post.

Seyi said...

The country is beginning to turn into a pseudo-gestapo nation. The recent actions of the govt has clearly indicated that it cannot tolerate dissenting views. However, is that not essence of democracy?

Anyway, thanks for stopping by.



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