By Tonnie Iredia

One of the lasting legacies of colonial rule in West Africa is the convention whereby rulers deny the governed access to information. To sustain that strategy of remaining unaccountable to the people, the British, in particular, effectively gagged the media.

In the bureaucracy, the tradition was that workers had no right to speak to the public. Indeed, they were only to be seen but not to be heard thereby institutionalizing the culture of secrecy for official business in the country. The old generation of civil servants imbibed it with clenched fist and bequeathed to posterity the posture that anything about government is a secret. It has regrettably remained largely so till date as civil servants are required to take oaths of secrecy not to disclose any information obtained in the course of their duties.

A few years back, there was the interesting story of how one of my friends, out of the frustration of bureaucracy sought to quit the civil service. His boss had given to him for safe custody, a file which had so many injunctions inscribed on it. Boldly written on the top of the front cover was the word ‘OFFICIAL’, at the bottom, it had ‘TOP SECRET’ while across the entire back cover was the word ‘CONFIDENTIAL’.

One day, he decided to open the file so as to get to know the ministry’s secret. He had to first firmly lock his office door. On opening the file, he found its contents to be no more than a list of approved public holidays.

The International Advisory Commission of the Human Rights Initiative found a similar situation in Kenya in 2003 where  ‘a file full of nothing more than newspaper cuttings was marked as “very confidential” and access to it was denied without the permission of the Permanent Secretary’.

If we credit colonialism with the introduction of such a strategy which turns people into robots, military rule in Nigeria was even more bizarre as every type of freedom whether that of the individual or that of the media to have information was in jeopardy.  Among other things, Decree No. 17, of 1967 empowered the head of the federal military government to prohibit the circulation of any newspaper which he considers detrimental to any part of the country.

To show that Nigerians can only have access to what is approved by government, the military in 1986 proscribed the Newswatch magazine for publishing excerpts of the Political Bureau’s report before it was released by government. The Bureau which was set up to find out the political system which Nigerians would prefer gathered facts publicly, throughout the nation to write its report. Can such a report be a secret?

It is thus ample relief that we have left those despotic days when public opinion was muzzled, to the glorious days when Nigeria is now among the nations with a freedom of information regime. In other words, we can now, as of right, demand from any public body any information of public interest which is in its custody.

Under the ‘Freedom of Information Act’ recently signed by President Jonathan, any request for access to information from a public or government organisation shall be attended by the head of such an organisation not later than 30 working days from the date of the receipt of the application. According to the said Act, an applicant who has been denied access to requested information could apply to the Court for a review of the matter within 30 days after the denial.

With this new freedom, there are many issues of the past which we would have dealt with if the Act had come into being much earlier. If nothing else, we would have demanded all the documents that the late President Yar’Adua’s aides took to Saudi Arabia and which he allegedly signed on his hospital bed.

We would not have forgotten to demand from the National Assembly the documents with which it pays salaries and allowances to legislators and their ‘aides’-a piece of information which even the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission does not know.  When our Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido, revealed that the National Assembly was extorting too much of the nation’s resources, former finance minister, Olusegun Aganga, allegedly said he had personally raised the same issue in the past, adding that a government committee on expenditure review was currently working on it.

When invited by the Senate on the subject, Minister Aganga denied saying so. We would have demanded a copy of the press brief where the minister was quoted to have said: “we know the issue and we are on top of it. There are changes which we will have to make; there could be tough issues but we have to make them with human face.”

Our next demand would be for copies of agreements on road construction contracts in the country to identify the unit cost of each and more importantly when each job is to end. This would throw light on a road like Abuja-Lokoja which is permanently under construction. As for the rich, they can demand information on the exact nature of “operational reasons” which make all airlines in Nigeria function inefficiently the same way through running late and cancelling flights on hourly basis.

Then, there is the issue of diversion of local government funds which officials at that level often accused governors of and which the latter always denied.  Now that Governor Aregbesola of Osun State has confirmed that some of his colleagues are guilty of it, we can move on to trace the transaction documents from the allocation committee up to when it is received at the local government. How it is spent at that point is also pertinent because of the high degree of lethargy at that level.  Otherwise, how best can we place the event tagged “2009 National Award/Dinner for Best-Performed Local Government Chairmen in Nigeria”?  The 110 council areas selected from the 36 states for the event, reportedly paid N800,000 each for the event.

We must warn though that it is not everything we need to use the new information law to handle. It is a wasted exercise, for example, to apply it to the unaccountable subject described as ‘security vote’ because we already have information as to what that subject stands for. Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso of Kano State made the point a few weeks back when he captioned security vote as only a device for stealing.

Of course, that does not make every governor a thief but it seems logical to regard as a thief the governor of a state where there is so much insecurity because if the fat and unaccountable amount supposedly voted for security is used for its purpose, insecurity will not subsist.

However, we need not despair because, if nothing else, the new information law can checkmate those who intimidate the people and gag the media so as to remain unaccountable in office.  With  that, we can begin to rejoice that Nigeria will soon be free!

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