The People’s Right to Know

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Dan Agbese

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By Dan Agbese  |

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AS I was saying, President Muhammadu Buhari should make an informed citizenry the cardinal principle of his administration. The reason should should be pretty obvious. An ignorant or uninformed citizenry is deleterious to the health, the growth and the sustenance of democracy. No modern government thrives on the ignorance of the people.

An informed citizenry in a democracy is a product of free flow of vital information between the government and the governed. It packs three critical elements considered as parts of the pillars of democracy namely, openness, transparency and accountability. An open and transparent government is a bulwark against opacity in government. Accountability is the seal on the social contract between the government and the governed. It obliges the government to let the citizens in on what it is doing and why.

The question has always been: How much should the people know? I confess that I am not sure if the answer to this question requires some mathematical calculation. Arguably, we can say that the people ought to know everything. Of course, that is not possible. Anyone who pushes for this soon runs into something called national security. It permits governments to hoard information it considers either beyond the ken of the people or is part of the necessary secrecy that protects governments from the inquisitive elements in the society. The truth is that all governments are chary about opening their books to the scrutiny of the people for whose sake they are in power.

The US was the first country to enact a freedom of information legislation to compel government to respect the right of the people to know by sharing information with them. We, too, have a similar law. It has not shaken the earth, of course, hedged in as it is, by legal clauses that constitute obstacles to the citizen’s full exercise of this right but matters could have been worse if the law did not exist.

Having said all that, I wish to argue here that the Buhari administration is ignoring two elements critical to its success as a government of the people by the people and for the people. The first is that symbolism is the story and the glory of government. Soon after he assumed office, Buhari and the vice-president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, publicly declared their assets. Their action speaks to the symbolism of transparency in government. Their primary purpose was to show that we can trust them as honest men. They have not come to loot but to serve. The president also meant to draw a line between the past and the present. Meaning, we have entered an era of honesty in government. Call it the symbolism of the change mantra.

In a piece I wrote for this newspaper after the public declaration of their assets, I argued what the president and the vice-president did was not enough to tout it fully symbolic of a new attitude towards government. Government is a team made of men and women serving it at various level. This being so, what the two men did would make more sense if the president compels his ministers and special advisers to follow the example set by him and his vice-president. They too should declare their assets. None of them has done so up till now. There is no evidence in the public space that the president has tried to compel them to do so.

His and the vice-president acting in virtual isolation do not cut it. Our symbolism of the change mantra should provide us with veritable evidence that we have reached a watershed in our often frustrating quest for honesty and transparency in government. To miss this symbolism is to turn the change mantra into a broken crutch.

My second point is that this government is not quite talking to us – and, as they say, carrying us along. When a government decides that mum is the word, it lends itself to being misunderstood – and what Bishop Hassan Kukah calls rumourcracy takes over and begins the corrosive process of eating into its integrity. There is no substitute for openness in a democracy.

Take the anti-graft war. Buhari is fighting corruption with everything at his disposal. He leaves none of us in any doubts that he is honest about this and that at the end of the day, he would give us a country that abhors rather than glorifies corruption and celebrates the corrupt.

The anti-graft agency, EFCC, is doing a fine and commendable job. Its new head has raised our hopes that all treasury looters, like the dog, will have their day both in the court of public opinion and in the courts of law. But the success of this war and the support of the people depend on how the commission relates to the people.

As I see it, the anti-graft war must be seen to have entered a new phase: what I call the name and shame phase. It is no longer enough for us to be fed on snatches of half-baked information from the news media on what the EFCC is doing. The commission must name names now. We must know who cheated us in the recent past. We must know what they have returned to the treasury so far. It is not right to protect those who cheated us by freely helping themselves to the contents of our treasury. A man who stole from the public purse loses the right to be protected by the same public he cheated.

Perhaps, the commission does not realise that without the regular briefing of the public on its activities, the war appears to be losing steam, thus leading to the cynical view that chairman Magu too would go the way of his predecessors – all bubble. It is a problem the commission is quite capable of remedying – and it should do so without further delay.

The government may have a conveniently short memory but the people do not. Take the case of the Abacha loot. We have had snatches of information about this going all the way back to the Obasanjo administration but we have never had a comprehensive information on how much was looted, how much was recovered and what the government did with it. The whole thing has been entirely opaque.

We need to change the mind set that subscribes to keeping the people in the dark. Our president must talk to us at regular intervals – and not through his press aides. EFCC must talk to us and keep us fully informed about the treasury looters and the recovery of the loot from them.

This government must do things differently. After all, as a presidential candidate, Buhari promised us change and was swept into power almost entirely on that promise. One year is enough for this administration to demonstrate in concrete terms that we are gaining the shore towards a new country in which an informed citizenry matters.

—  May 9, 2016 @ 16:20 GMT

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