At a time many countries are fast embracing ‘open government’ Nigeria is taking more steps to entrench secrecy and opaqueness in the system. The government demonstrated this path to infamy with the recent oath of secrecy reportedly administered on senior members of the staff of the presidency, especially those who handled classified documents. The ritual was followed with threats to sanction any of them that divulges classified information to the public. The oath was said to have been administered by Justice Hamza Muazu of the FCT High Court.
Permanent Secretary, State House, Tijjani Umar, who spoke on the importance of the ceremony, warned that the presidency would not tolerate any breach by the staff, adding that doing so without authorisation was a grievous offence.
He cautioned: “When we say classified documents, they are secret and other documents that ought not to be handled without due diligence. So, I think it’s so important because we are alarmed by the fact that, nowadays, due to deployment of staff and through retirement, we discovered that a number of our officers need to be placed under the radar…They will be aware that the jobs that they are holding, and the kind of documents or information they are holding… are so important and must be safeguarded.”
The oath taking exercise is very disturbing and suggests a return to opaqueness and something sinister in governance. Coming from an administration that had pledged openness in the conduct of its affairs, makes the exercise worrisome. Secrecy suggests that the government is doing something creepy that it does not want to be brought to the attention of the citizens. It does not make for transparency. We condemn the administration of oath of secrecy, a relic of colonial government.
There is no doubt that it is part of the civil service tradition for employees to take an oath of allegiance before their assumption of duty, but the manner, timing, and wordings of the recent oath of secrecy administered on the presidency officials and other senior civil servants, leave much to be desired.
While we agree that there are certain sensitive documents and information particularly those that border on national security which should not be made public, we suspect that the recent oath taking exercise was a design to forestall media access to sensitive documents that the government may not be comfortable with. A clear distinction must be made between national security and regime security. National security cannot be defined loosely. It connotes actions that affect the sovereignty of the state.
It is not in doubt that certain provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), empower the media to monitor the activities of the government and hold it accountable to the people. This role should not be suppressed under any guise by the government.
The compulsion in the oath of secrecy is self-serving and against the tenets of democracy. By the exercise, government has passed a vote of no confidence in its employees.
This is not the first time the Federal Government would compel senior public servants to take an oath of secrecy. It was done during the administration of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua following increasing media questions concerning his frail health. The government then argued that it was not in the public interest for journalists to report on the fragile health of the President.
The danger of the oath of secrecy is that it undermines the essence of governance. Democracy entails openness on the part of the leaders. At all times, the led must know what the government is doing.
The oaths of allegiance by civil servants should not be confused with the oath of secrecy as administered on the presidency staff. The former is designed to preserve classified information and documents, while the latter is aimed at shutting Nigerians from activities of the government. It is against the 2011 Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees Nigerians unfettered access to information concerning government activities.
We hope that the exercise is not a subtle attempt by the government to bring back the obnoxious Official Secret Act of 1919, a colonial instrument that has been expunged from Nigeria’s statute books. Oath of secrecy undermines openness, which is the hallmark of democracy. Coming at a time when the world is going for transparency and open government, it is regrettable.