Accra, Ghana
The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent non-governmental organisation created to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the countries of the Commonwealth. We push for an adherence to the Commonwealth's Harare Principles and the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. CHRI was established in 1987 after several Commonwealth countries voiced their concern about a lack of focus on Human rights within the Commonwealth organization. CHRI currently has three offices; in Delhi, London and Accra. The Africa office was opened in Accra in 2001 and is at the forefront of the fight to uphold basic human freedoms in the region. We work in three main areas of human rights: Human Rights Advocacy; Access to justice and The Right to Information.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

A Step Forward for Nigeria, a Standstill for Ghana

Sad to say, but Ghana will have to take a backseat to Nigeria on progressive legislation. Late last month marked a significant date on the Nigerian democratic calendar. After collaborative efforts on behalf of the Media Rights Agenda, Open Society Justice Initiative, Right to Know Movement, Nigeria, and OSIWA, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan passed the Freedom of Information Bill into law.

This road to freedom of information was not an easy one. In 1999 the FOI Bill was presented to Nigeria’s fourth National Assembly; however there was little development for several years. In 2003 the bill was again presented to Nigeria’s fifth National Assembly, and by 2007 was signed by both Chambers. This seeming progression, however, revealed itself to be a chimera when President Olusegun Obasanjo rejected the bill, stating that it would be a threat to national security. Nevertheless, after over eleven years of steadfast persistence, on 28 May 2011, Nigeria marked itself as the sixteenth member of the Commonwealth, and the seventh country of Africa, to have passed a law granting a right to information.

So what does this development mean for the country of Nigeria? By granting a right to information, people have the right to access, and public institutions must proactively disclose, government-held public records and information that was hitherto considered confidential, and therefore kept away from public scrutiny. People can access information from departments of the government, corporations, and companies in which government has a controlling interest.

                                              President Goodluck Jonathan who passed Nigeria's FOI Bill
With this law, private companies utilizing public funds, providing public services or performing public functions are open to public scrutiny. Right to information grants insight into goals and decisions of the government, allowing for more informed decisions by the public; thus reinforcing a true democratic society. This means that traditionally closed governments and reluctant bureaucrats will have to fundamentally change their ways of working. Openness and not secrecy will have to reign. Bringing this change about is the greatest challenge now before the nation.

The Bill also provides protection to whistleblowers, ensuring immunity of any person disclosing malfeasance by their employers. This is particularly important as a great many powerful people, in long term, cozy relationships with each other, will find their questionable benefits under threat from disclosure.

Coming after so long, it is almost churlish to point out some of the law’s infirmities, but a glaring one is the absence of an Information Commission. The Information Commission works to oversee the implementation of the law and adjudicate cases of complaints and appeals when people do not receive information or are aggrieved by the decisions of the public institutions. Instead, the law requires someone who has been refused information to go to high court or the Federal Court. This expensive, time-consuming process is by no means possible for the majority of people.

Even as Nigeria has enacted a freedom of information law, Ghana still lags behind. After six long years Ghana’s first Bill, drafted in 2003, was finally approved by the Cabinet – thus allowing it to be presented before Parliament. However, despite the seeming progression, Parliament claimed it had never received the Bill. As of 2009 a startling sense of déjà vu was sensed as the bill was once again approved by Ghana’s Cabinet and presented to Parliament for consideration, this time successfully.

For the moment Ghana’s FOI bill lies stagnant in Parliament, and Ghanaian citizens are far from placid. On 28 January 2010 Accra was flooded with approximately 500 people, all demonstrating a united desire to see the FOI bill passed by Parliament. Headed by Mr. Seth Ablorsu, an executive member of the Trade Union Congress, and Nana Oye Lithur, a Human Rights activist, the demonstrators identified themselves as “Coalition on the Right to Information”.

As it stands, Ghana’s draft Bill contains many critical deficits that could render superficial citizen’s right to know. For instance, the staggering list of items restricted from public enquiry (as many as 53) severely limits information available for scrutiny. For example, according to section 5 (1), “Information is exempt if it is for submission or has been submitted to the Office of the President or the Vice-President”. The Bill goes on to exclude information pertaining to the Cabinet or Armed Forces. By restricting access to presidential deliberations, Ghanaians are unable to make informed decisions about their political leaders. Moreover, without enforced transparency it makes it difficult to unveil potential political corruption.

The unduly long time-period within which information can be made available is another matter of concern. After a request is made asking for a particular bit of information, the information officer can take up to 21 days simply to decide whether the information may be released – something that could be achieved in one day. Moreover, after the decision as to how much information can be released, it can take an additional fourteen days to deliver it.

The Ghanaian Bill also suffers the same deficiency as the Nigerian one in not having an Information Commission.

All in all, Ghana seems to be two steps behind Nigeria when it comes to a right to information. The sluggish manner in which Parliament seems to be processing the FOI Bill is a matter of unrest for many Ghanaians. If it is going to catch up, Parliament will need to let go of its lethargy, consult openly with, and listen to, a wide public, and significantly improve the pending law. The solidarity and support of various organizations as well as public demonstrations is an important step in achieving a right to know. Ghanaians are creating a loud message for their desire for human rights, and it is high time for Parliament to step up, listen and learn from their neighbours.
Chanté Blais, Canadian intern for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in Delhi.
Aricle also published in The Chronicle, Friday 10th of June 2011. See http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=210593&comment=0#com


  1. I don't think this constant Nigeria/ Ghana thing is healthy or a fair comparison

  2. A right to access to information is simply something that both Ghana and Nigeria have been working on for years now and it is encouraging to see one of them formally recognizing the law.

    It is not in a malicious spirit of "Nigeria this, Ghana that". It is a hope that the act of one neighbouring country might serve as a catalyst for another, and put pressure on governmental bodies elsewhere to follow suit.