Information is a powerful tool. It generally leads to knowledge, and most of the time knowledge improves and illuminate our lives. Consider the current revolution shaking up the Middle East. It is truly amazing. This revolution is the “the Information Revolution”. Once the people found out the truth about their governments they had the permission and the strength to demand better representative governments. Once you know the truth, everything else follows. Louis Brandell once famously quipped “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman”. Truth is the electric light here and Nigeria is in dire need of cleansing.The idea of transparency and openness leading to economic and human development is one that has been well established in research. The availability of public information to the governed is unquestionably the bedrock of a true democracy. With the passage of the FOI Bill by the Nigerian House of Assembly last week, Nigeria too is having her own revolution. Although we don’t have crowds filling the streets of Lagos and Abuja, but change is here. We are on the right path and I can barely hold in my excitement.
Nigeria is rather notorious for her terrifying closeness and lack of transparency in her government. However, this new bill expressly guarantees the “right for any person to request information, whether or not contained in any written form which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution”. The bill gives any public institution 7 days to provide information as requested by any Nigerian. Further if such a request is denied, the Nigerian can sue within 30 days and the judiciary must hear the case and offer her judgment. This is greatest tool that will certainly help us fight against corruption and usher a new culture of transparency. It is also an incentive for the government to remain accountable and conduct Nigerian business legally and openly. The bill, if passed, will protect our rights, guard against mismanagement of public funds and office, and protect our democracy.
A couple of summers ago, I was in Nigeria working on a project to cost the then “maternal, newborn and child health intervention” project for the Nigerian Ministry of Health. I went on this fact-finding mission, armed with a survey and a naïve disposition. I would routinely ask for departmental budgets and accounts ledgers and the credulous expressions on the faces of these bureaucrats always left me dejected. They were first amused and then annoyed when I pressed for evidence for the numbers and prices they quoted to me. “We have accounts but it is not your right to view it they will tell me”. One even brought out his books but refused my request to open it and check. The entire summer was a lesson in the alien relationship between those who govern and those who are governed.
We have all heard about the upcoming elections and its importance for the future of our democracy. However, a credible election means nothing without the peoples freedom to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. This idea is expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Nigeria is signatory. It is imperative that the FOI bill is passed to law and implemented as soon as possible. We may spend billions of Naira to elect seemingly progressive men to govern us. However, without our ability to look in on them, to check on their progress or lack of it with or without their consent, we have done nothing. An election does not a democracy make. An election with a fully functioning FOI law and a truly engaged polity is a fantastic start towards building a truly democratic society. I cannot stress this point enough. The very presence of rules that establishes and guarantees access to governance data for citizens automatically makes the country very attractive to foreign investment and thus leads to economic growth. It is truly a win-win for everyone.
The fact that this current senate is also committed to passing the law is even more exciting. The bill is said to have passed the second reading on the senate floor. This is great news and it shows a commitment to good governance by this current class of lawmakers. It is rumored that the senate might even pass the bill before the end of this week.
Unfortunately, a senior aide to President Jonathan has expressed his wishes against true democracy in Nigeria. He has threatened to advise the president not to sign the bill into law claiming “no government or organization will offer its official secret to members of the public or the press”. It is obvious that some federal government actions might need to remain secret for national security purposes at least for a while and this current bill guarantees and protects the integrity of state secrets. Senator Aji’s claim that the bill “includes the disclosure of information about our defense, the presidential villa and everything” is false and disingenuous. One is not sure If the senator had not read the bill or if he had simply wanted to mislead Nigerians. The bill also exempts private institutions. Abba-Aji has promised to work against the passage of the bill that ushers in a new culture of openness. Men such as Senator Mohammed Abba –Aji forget that it is a new day in the world. The days of closeness and rampant corruption are long gone. Never again will a privileged few rule against the best interest of the 150 million Nigerians they serve. Senator Mohammed Abba –Aji, please do not forget that you serve at the pleasure of Nigerians. We pay your salary and you work for us, and promising to deny us our rights will no longer be tolerated.
It is important that we all pay attention this month and continue to pressure President Jonathan to pass this bill to law. This is our chance to demand better. This is the revolution of our time. The revolution of openness!