By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – Erstwhile chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, Monday approached the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court, asking it to abort plan by the commission to administer oath of secrecy/confidentiality on its staff.
Odinkalu, who recently raised the alarm over the alleged plot, urged the court to declare such oath illegal and unconstitutional, contending that the policy would grossly violate rights of staff of the commission to their statutorily guaranteed freedom of expression.
He, therefore, applied for an order of perpetual injunction restraining the respondents to the suit from proceeding with the plan.
Cited as respondents in the matter were the NHRC, its Executive Secretary, Anthony Ojukwu, the Nigeria Civil Service Union (NHRC branch) and its Chairman, Comrade Efem Atu.
Odinkalu maintained that the neither the NHRC nor its Executive Secretary was empowered by any known law in Nigeria to direct the commission’s staff to subscribe to an oath of secrecy/confidentiality, the observance of which would violate his (the applicant’s) right to freedom of expression guaranteed under Section 39(1) of the Constitution, among other provisions.
In an affidavit he attached in support of the suit, the plaintiff told the court that the NHRC had by an internal memo or circular dated July 3 and signed by one Ibe Obidigwe, directed all Heads of Departments/Units/State Coordinators of the 1st respondent, NHRC,m to distribute copies of an oath of secrecy declaration to staff of their various departments/units to subscribe and return same to the 1st Respondent‘s Human Resources Management Department.
“A copy of the oath of secrecy declaration document to be subscribed by the staff of the 1st respondent was attached to the said internal memo or circular dated 3rd July, 2019.
“In the desperate bid of the 1st and 2nd respondents to achieve their purpose of compelling or getting the staff of the 1st respondent to subscribe to the said oath of secrecy, had a meeting with the 3rd respondent (the Nigeria Civil Service Union (NHRC branch) on 5th July, 2019 and enlisted the cooperation of the 3rd respondent to get its members to subscribe to the said oath of secrecy”, he added.
He had revealed that the oath seeks to ensure that information on activities of the commission is not unofficially released to a third party or members of the public.
In series of tweets, Odinkalu insisted that an agency like the NHRC which is bound by the Freedom of Information Act, should not delve into such needless controversy.
According to him, “Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, a public body bound by the Freedom of Information Act, has in the past week ordered all its staff to sign and subscribe to forms of ‘oath of Secrecy’- very much like a secret cult.”
He argued that standing orders and rules of procedure of the commission does not support such oath of secrecy.