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Volume 11 Number 4
New Delhi, Winter 2004

Public Accountability and Multilateral Governance: Access to Information in Africa
Complied by Vaishali Mishra
Media Officer, CHRI

Over the past ten years, around forty countries have passed Right to Information (RTI) laws. The great majority has been in Eastern and Central Europe and Asia. Africa sadly lags behind: besides Zimbabwe's repressive Access to Information and Privacy Act, only South Africa has an ATI law. However, there are signs of activity on the African continent: there are draft ATI bills in a number of places including Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique.

This article seeks to provide an update on some of this work.

Update on draft civil society access to information laws in the region


Ghana's 1992 Constitution is one of the few Constitutions in the world that guarantees both freedom of expression and separately, right to information. In line with Ghana's commitment to international human rights covenants and conventions such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to information is part of the general fundamental freedoms and human rights contained in the Chapter 5 of the Constitution.

A " Freedom of Information Bill" was drafted in 2002, and has since been approved by the Ghanaian Cabinet. The draft Bill states, "Every person has a right of access to information or part of information in the custody or under the control of a government agency unless the information or that part of the information falls within any of the exemptions specified in Part II." The Bill also outlines responsibilities and procedures for responding to applications for information, requiring that authorities respond to requests within 30 days. The Bill also provides for access to information held by private bodies if the information is required for the protection of "fundamental human rights or freedoms, preservation of public safety or protection of public interest".

Critiques of the Bill state that the Bill contains too many exemptions to the right to information and could therefore potentially be open to abuse, including an exemption if "the disclosure of the information could reasonably be expected to damage the financial interest of Government," as well as exemptions for "Frivolous or vexatious application".

The Bill doesn't contain any penalty provisions in case a public official unreasonably refuses to provide information. There is also no monitoring body present to supervise operation of the law. The challenge that Ghana faces is the lack of advocacy for integrating the right to information in all governance processes in the continent. There is a need for RTI organisations to take an interest in the APRM process to facilitate its accuracy and success.


At present, Mozambique has no right to information law, although the Mozambique's Constitution specifically recognizes the right to information as a fundamental constitutional right. Article 74 (1) of the Constitution explicitly recognises that every citizen has the right to inform oneself and be informed about the relevant facts and opinions, at the national and international level, as well as to disseminate information, opinions and ideas through the press.

In the internal law of Mozambique, there is no specific regulation related to access of information sources. This gap needs to be filled especially when it comes to information related to the well being of all citizens.

So, despite the Constitutional protection afforded to the right, little has been done to operationalise it in practice. This is a major failing because it is well accepted that even where there is a specific constitutional guarantee for the right to information, legislation is needed to detail the content and extent of the right. Recent analyses by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Article 19 and ODAC South Africa have pointed out several faults. Most significant among these, are the failure of the Bill to contain a clear statement entrenching a "Right to Information." More generally the draft is brief, with the result that it fails to include a number of important provisions such as permitting requests to private bodies and protection or whistleblowers. Also the procedures for necessary information need to be better thought through.


The current Namibian government's approach to access to information is coloured by its long-standing reluctance to address questions and disclose information related to the struggle for independence.

It has now entered the process of formulating Freedom of Information legislation, more as a result of pressure from external factors rather than a demand from internal forces. Currently the process is hampered by a lack of popular demand for Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation. Both civil society and the media, by all indications, seem not to see the need for such an Act. On its part, the media has been silent in its support for such legal reform - a process in which it certainly has a vested interest.

The Namibian Constitution does not make any specific reference to the protection of the right to information. There is also no additional legislation, which provides for this right. The constitution merely protects the right to freedom of speech and expression, which is said to include freedom of the press and other media outlets. However, a Cabinet directive was issued in 1999, tasking the office of the Prime Minister with formulating draft FOI legislation. Since then, no substantial development has been recorded in this regard.


The House of Representatives last week passed perhaps the most important bill in the fight against corruption and the enthronement of transparency and accountability in government when it overwhelmingly passed the Freedom of Access to Information Bill.

For the first time it will be a criminal offence for any public official to hoard information. It remains for the Senate to pass its own version of the bill and for the President to append his signature for Nigeria to join the league of open democratic societies.

Experience has proved both in Nigeria and elsewhere that misrule begins when government officials are allowed by statutes such as the Official Secrets Act to withhold information from the people they serve. Invariably, the information withheld are those that foster corrupt practices by the public officials whether elected or not.

The bill, which was sponsored by Jerry Igbokwe, has removed the shackles from the media for conducting investigative journalism in the most professional manner acceptable worldwide and would allow the Nigerian media to beam its searchlight on public officials.

Henceforth, public service will cease to be attractive to those who in the past have considered public office as a method of self-enrichment; they will give way increasingly to people who have genuine interest in social and economic development of the country. Political appointments, which have assumed the status of life and death contests, will also change their character.

But, the bill should be regarded as a means not as an end in itself. Government must demonstrate the will to enforce its provisions; otherwise it would not be worth the paper on which it is written. In addition to that, the citizens of this country, especially the media, must now vigorously but responsibly make use of the power that the bill has given them; not for blackmail or self-enrichment but in the public interest.

Finally, it is fortunate that this bill has been passed three years before the next election and before new candidates start presenting themselves for election to various offices. The 2007 elections will present the country and the media the first real test of the efficacy or otherwise of this bill. Those who would want to use ill-gotten wealth to secure elective office must be prepared to face media scrutiny such as this country has never witnessed before.


The enactment of a FOI law is therefore just the beginning. Governments need to radically change their internal cultures and be more receptive to demands of public accountability. Transparency and a meaningful articulation of the Access to Information Bills should be a core value and a central operating principle for governments to enable citizens and civil society organisations to participate in their policy-making and in their institutional evolution, and to thereby give them ligitimacy.

This article has been compiled on the basis of the papers produced by Nana Oye Lithur, Kaitira Kanjii the ATI Programme Director for the Media Institute of Southern Africa and Osaro Odemwingie, presented in the Conference on Public Accountability and Multilateral Governance arranged by Open Democracy Advice Centre on the 29 September 2004 in Pretoria, South Africa.

CHRI Newsletter, Winter 2004

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Design: Print: Anshu Tejpal, Electronic: Jyoti Bhargava, CHRI; Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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