‘The Freedom of Information Act in Sierra Leone may not pass until after the national elections,’ moans a friend at the Ministry of Information and Communication. The FOI bill, as it’s popularly called, has been sitting in Parliament since October 2010. The Act gives citizens the right to access information held by public authorities. Despite a number of legislative committee meetings, Parliament has not agreed to let it pass. Popular excuses have been: a lack of quorum, lack of clarity on language in the bill and the absence of the Minister of Information and Communication.
The passage of the bill would make Sierra Leone the seventh country on the African continent with the right to information legislation. The others are Angola, South Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Liberia. Apparently, parliamentarians in Sierra Leone are terrified of the bill and the levels of transparency and accountability it might force them to adopt. ‘They don’t want journalists probing into their personal lives and expenses just before the national elections in 2012,’ the friend says.
A couple of weeks ago, the Freedom of Information Coalition, a network of civil society organizations, sent a letter to the President, reminding him of his government’s promise to pass the law in 2010. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, leading the coalition from the civil society group Society for Democratic Initiatives, wrote:
‘Mr. President, I note in 2009 the Honorable Minister of Information and Technology, Alhaji I.B. Kargbo, signed a declaration in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, in a conference organized by Carter Centre, on your behalf indicating an intention to make the right to information law in Sierra Leone. Furthermore, through Alhaji I.B. Kargbo your government committed itself to the introduction of freedom of information law in 2010, this time in Accra, Ghana, where public undertakings were made to Jimmy Carter, former president of the USA. Undertakings of a similar nature were later made to the World Bank and your pledges are noted on the public record.’
Some people think that there hasn’t been enough pressure on the government from within the country. Letters such as these have no teeth; they get published in a few newspapers in Freetown and then forgotten. International organizations such as the World Bank have been pushing the passage of the bill. But in Sierra Leone only Abdulai’s voice has been most audible. ‘Maybe Parliament feels that there is only pressure from one person, not the whole civil society,’ says Edward Kwame Yankson, the focal point for FOI within the Ministry of Information and Communication. There is an urgent need for grassroots civil society to get involved and tell average citizens about the benefits of the bill. If people in Sierra Leone feel that they own the bill, there will be more pressure to see it passed.
In neighbouring Nigeria, an FOI Bill has been pending for 11 years and was not even debated in Parliament for four years. Finally in February the bill passed in the House of Representatives. However, the version passed by the Senate is different and this issue is waiting to be resolved.
In Sierra Leone FOI has been on the agenda since 2005. If momentum doesn’t pick up we could be waiting a long time too.