Secrecy, the Government and the Nigerian People

on   /   in Viewpoint 12:08 am   /   Comments

By Akintola Omigbodun

I have always been fascinated by the actions and inactions of government, be it at the federal level, the state level, or the local level. My father, the late Chief J. L. Omigbodun, was involved in governance at the local level in the 1950s as a part-time chairman of the Osogbo District Council.

I often wondered then why persons, who called to see Chief Omigbodun at home about district council matters, felt that their business was so important that he should break his afternoon sleep to see his visitors. I am a lot wiser now. When I started to have contact with government, I discovered that documents generated in the course of government business are kept in files marked confidential, secret and other terminologies that are meant to imply superiority to secret.Independence-Cartoon

A declaration that something is a secret would imply that the knowledge of that thing is limited to a few people. The appearance given that government business is conducted in secret has led to a situation in which government officials are not eager to disclose details of government programmes meant for the people’s benefit.

Levels of secrecy may be useful for ready identification of persons who may see the documents in the government’s files. Government may also believe that there is a need to protect the record of the process by which decisions are made. However, once government has taken a decision, government should inform the public of the decision and of the progress government is making in implementing the decision.

Each Wednesday, at the conclusion of the meeting of the Federal Executive Council, information is given at a press conference on the contracts and policies approved at the meeting. It would be a refreshing addition to this press conference if the public is informed of the status of contracts and policies approved when the meeting was held 52 Wednesdays ago. Such details as the nature of and amount spent on work done, probable completion date and amount required for completion of a contract would adequately inform the public.

Government should engage the public by explaining its policies even if there would be people who are not in agreement with certain policies. There is often the need to mobilize the public in support of certain policies. Government can have secrets in a war against terrorism but the question will arise as to whether government can have any secrets in a war against malaria, a disease which kills many people each year.

Sometimes one writes to a government ministry/agency asking for a policy decision, or the grant of a relief, concession or some other thing for which the power to decide lies with the government ministry/agency. The head of the ministry/agency sends the letter down the hierarchy of his/her organisation and if one is fortunate, the letter returns by the same route to the head with recommendations on which a decision can be based.

The process of getting the letter back to the head may usually involve follow-up visits by the initiator of the letter to the organisation. In some instances, officials down the hierarchy may not send the letter back to the head. This is a troubling aspect as most heads are reputed to be hardworking and it should be possible for procedures to be put in place which will ensure that letters which require a decision to be taken by the head are sent back to the head.

There was once in Lagos State a Chief Judge, Justice Christopher Segun, who held firmly to his oath of office to do justice to all manner of men/women equally without fear or favour. His handling of correspondence to his office was exemplary. Each correspondence was entered in a register and his comments were also entered in the register such that on a subsequent visit to the Chief Judge’s office, the person who initiated the correspondence can read the comments in the register. I will recommend Justice Segun’s approach to all heads of government ministries/agencies.

Currently each minister, permanent secretary or director of a department at the federal level has a contract of performance with the President and Commander-in-Chief and these contracts probably cover the delivery by each ministry/agency of the projects and programmes in the government’s budget. The presidential media chat held in November 2012 had demonstrated that the Nigerian people can readily identify projects and programmes that the government would find it has to execute.

Ministers, permanent secretaries and directors are the initiators of projects and programmes in the government’s budget. They should look beyond their contracts of performance and should engage the Nigerian people such that projects and programmes in the government’s budget better reflect the needs and aspirations of the Nigerian people.

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