Dawn of the right to information in Africa?

United Nations’ Africa Day - May 25 - a day to reflect on a year that was meant to mark a watershed for development in Africa. Despite another year of Africa hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, a quiet revolution is taking place in countries across the c

ontinent that may at last lay the foundations for political and economic stability, good governance and prosperity.
During the past year, officials and human rights activists in Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Ghana and even in recently war-torn Sierra Leone have been busy drafting national Freedom of Information Bills. Meanwhile, Uganda became only the fourth African country to entrench a FOI law, when its Access to Information Act 2005 came into force on April 20.
Freedom of information has long been recognised as a foundational human right, ever since the UN General Assembly declared in 1946 that “freedom of information is a fundamental human right and a touchstone of all freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” However, around the world, only around 60 countries have enacted freedom of information (FOI) laws.
An FOI law can help sow the seeds of good governance by promoting government transparency and accountability and also facilitating greater public participation in government decision-making. Empowering citizens with the legal right to access information on government’s activities can strengthen democracy by making government directly accountable to its citizens on a day-to-day basis rather than just at election time. Even at election time, an FOI law would ensure that voters have better access to information concerning the government’s record in office, allowing them to make a more informed decision at the ballot box. Voters would then be less reliant on political propaganda and rumours and would be less inclined to fall back on their ethnic affiliations when casting their vote.
Freedom of information can also open up channels of communication between civil society and the state. Openness and information sharing can entrench national stability by establishing dialogues between different ethnic groups as well as between citizens and the state, helping to promote popular trust in the political system.
By promoting dialogue between citizens and their governments, freedom of information can help to ensure the effectiveness of development and poverty alleviation strategies.
With a FOI law in place, governments would be obliged to share information on their poverty alleviation strategies with the public, who can then have a voice in determining how these strategies can more effectively improve their lives.
In recent years, throughout the African continent, governments have been liberalising their economies in order to accelerate growth and development. By implementing an FOI law and thereby demonstrating their commitment to transparency, African governments would be more successful in assuring investor confidence in the economy, encouraging long-term private and foreign investment and bolstering growth.
Meanwhile, over the last decade neighbouring Zimbabwe, which passed its Access of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 2002, has been in a downward spiral economically and in terms of the promotion and protection of the rights and freedoms of its citizens. Zimbabwe’s law has very limited provisions on access to information and its main purpose has been to strengthen the government’s power to control and crack down on the independent media. As a result, the public’s ability to bring the government to account for its actions has been constrained, while the government has been able to tighten its monopoly on information and conceal its motivations and decision-making processes behind a wall of secrecy.
It is crucial for the new wave of countries in Africa that are pursuing access laws to ensure their laws incorporate certain key principles that will help to foster openness, transparency, and public participation. If implemented effectively, a FOI law can act as a powerful deterrent of corruption. Corruption has long been the scourge of development in Africa, and has been responsible for not only eating into state revenues but also civil society’s trust in the state, thus not only hindering economic development but also contributing to the collapse of the state in countries across the continent.
Effective implementation of a FOI law can make it much more difficult for officials to cover up their corrupt practices and can also help to expose poor policymaking. Even at the local level, freedom of information can be used to expose agencies that fail to deliver basic services such as health and education and can thus empower people who had previously suffered in silence as a result of corrupt officialdom. – Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Delhi

Post published in: Opinions

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