Meet Mr ‘Freedom of Information’

Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai claims that people in Sierra Leone call him the ‘Freedom of Information Man’, a well-earned moniker since he was the one that drafted the country’s Freedom of Information Bill in 2005.

The lack of access to information is one of the most critical shortcomings in Sierra Leone. At the law courts people run around in circles trying to find out why their loved ones have been imprisoned. My reporters return to office dejected because the Mayor or some Minister refuses to answer their questions. Civil society groups are unable to hold the Government accountable for acts of corruption. 

The bill, which calls for access to information, presupposes that public bodies do not hold information for themselves but for the benefit of all members of the public. Abdulai was inspired by the Canadian Access to Information Act and believes that it is the way to promoting stability and good governance

Although the bill has been cheered internationally, progress to ratify it nationally has been painfully slow. According to Article 19, an organization that promotes freedom of expression around the world, the draft ‘provides a clear statement of the right to access any information held by a public body, as well as information held by private bodies when necessary to enforce a right, subject only to narrow exceptions.’

The reigning APC administration brandished it as a campaign promise before the 2007 election. ‘When I spoke to Ernest Bai Koroma (the current President) about it then he said I was preaching to the converted and the bill would definitely be ratified once they won,’ says Abdulai. Yet now, after two years in power, no one from the administration wants to touch it. Abdulai’s organization, the Society for Democratic Initiatives, has conducted numerous sensitization workshops with both Parliamentarians and members of the public.

‘Why are they hesitating?’ I ask him. 

‘The bill will make it easier to expose corruption which is rampant and compel the Government to disseminate information in a way that is easily understandable,’ he says. We discuss a recent news break that high-ranking members of the ruling party were involved in a number of illegal land deals. He explains that if the Act existed it would be easier for both the media and civil society to obtain the actual paperwork related to the deals. 

Abdulai confides that he has a personal interest in the bill. He believes that the lack of governmental transparency was one of the reasons that led to the 11-year civil war. As a young boy during the war he saw his older brother kidnapped by the rebel Revolutionary United Front and subsequently killed. ‘I wanted to know what started the war and why my brother died,’ he says. Those questions led him to where he is now.  

Currently a number of West African states are trying to pass their own Freedom of Information laws, including Nigeria, Ghana and Liberia. The longest-running campaign in the region is the Nigerian one, now 11 years old. In 2007, the Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo refused to sign into law the Freedom of Information Bill sent to him for assent by the National Assembly, which was a major setback. 

As for Sierra Leone, will the law automatically instill accountability, transparency and restore the people’s faith in democratic governance? No, but it is an important first step.

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