There is something duplicitous about the Federal Government’s decision to compel senior officials at the Presidency to take an oath of secrecy. The public must be staggered by that news report. Should an administration that claims to run an open government be encouraging staff to operate in secret? Secrecy suggests the government is doing something sinister or creepy that it does not want to be brought to the attention of the public.
The oath of secrecy is obviously designed to prevent media access to and publication or broadcast of sensitive documents that could embarrass the government. This shows officials do not yet know how to relate with the media in mutually beneficial ways. More significantly, the new rule shows the government has adopted a combative approach and attitude to official leaks published or broadcast by the media.
A report published in The Guardian last Tuesday, July 27, 2021, said Permanent Secretary Tijjani Umar warned officials of state they can expect consequences for disclosing to the public any secret government information. 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 from day to day, Monday to Friday and beyond, those documents are so important and must be safeguarded.”
While many democratic governments aim to protect their national security interests through legislation, our system seems to be at odds with established practices and conventions in other developed democracies. Our bureaucrats prefer to make rules by instant decree, similar to what operates in countries under military dictatorship.
What does the oath of secrecy really imply? What are the consequences for an open or closed administration in a country in which accountability and responsibility are seen as pillars of socioeconomic development? Someone somewhere is afraid of transparency in government. The oath of secrecy suggests the government has things to hide that it does not want citizens to know.
What is the latest driver of the oath of secrecy in Nigeria? Could it be the President wants to run a country in which government activities, policies and programmes are concealed from civil society? How would secrecy in public service promote and enhance the best interests of the country? Is the government suspicious of, or has no faith in, the people who administer its policies? Could it be that ministers and other senior officials have little or no idea about how to govern?
I would argue that, by administering the oath of secrecy on public servants, the government has passed an adverse vote of confidence on its employees. The government is well and truly afraid of its own shadows.
There is always a conflict between official attempts to defend national security interests and journalists’ efforts to report news freely in the public interest. Around the world, governments have been struggling to balance the tension between securing national interests and promoting public-interest journalism. This is the subject taken up by Australian academic Martin Hirst (2013) when he argued that national interest and public interest should be understood differently because national interest implies upholding state secrets and concealing things from the public, while the public interest is about disclosure and the public’s right to know.
The case of Edward Snowden, the United States whistleblower who revealed top-secret documents that exposed the global surveillance programmes managed by the United States and British spy agencies, highlights the controversy between national security and public interest. Another example is the case of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks who became a target of various governments, particularly the US government, for his role in releasing secret government documents relating to diplomatic relations. Assange’s and Snowden’s disclosures demonstrate how, even in democratic countries, media freedom and free speech are seriously challenged by national security legislation.
It is important to keep in mind that 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 government of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua following increasing media questions concerning Yar’Adua’s frail health. Specifically, midway into his four-year tenure, Yar’Adua’s government established two main topics on which journalists and the public were not allowed to provide free and informed commentary. The first taboo topic was Yar’Adua’s health. No one could ask questions whether the President was in good health or in poor health. No, the public shouldn’t ask because Yar’Adua and his protectors wanted to keep the information secret. The silly logic was that it was not in the public interest for journalists to report on the fragile health of President Yar’Adua.
The second forbidden topic concerned media speculation about Yar’Adua’s capacity to serve as President. In that context, media speculation of any kind was considered a treasonable offence. If Yar’Adua were a military dictator, he would have revived the notorious Decree 4 of 1984, which Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon, as military dictators, used effectively to scuttle a free press in Nigeria. As far as Yar’Adua and his staff were concerned, the President’s health was nobody’s business. Persuaded by that bizarre illogic, security officials developed their own quaint law that regarded media commentary on Yar’Adua’s health as a threat to national security. It was on that basis that the Leadership newspaper was dragged to court in the second quarter of 2009 by Yar’Adua because the man felt offended that the paper had reported inaccurately on the condition of his health.
The current government is living in a theme park known as ‘Dream World’. The problem with that weird sense of perception is that it is a blinding one. The government believes it has the best approach to governance. For every national problem, officials feel the government has an armband solution. The government does not believe that anyone else, including civil society, journalists, students and labour unions, have useful ideas on how to solve national problems. In that little magic kingdom, the President’s kitchen cabinet perceives itself as the all-knowing divine rulers. Those officials are inflexible. They perceive compromises as weakness. That is why activist leaders agitating for autonomy for their people are hunted down in overseas countries and exported like cargo back to the country, a practice that clearly contravenes the principle of non-interference in every country’s internal affairs.
There is ultimately something wrong in a government that perceives dissent as evidence of enmity. It says a lot about the state of mind of those who were elected or appointed to govern. It is said that there is nothing secret under the sun. That is true. One day, long after 2023, we might be treated to revelations and confessions by chief architects of human rights abuses perpetrated under the government.
Whether government bureaucrats like it or not, Nigerians and the media are entitled to scrutinise Buhari and his government. The media have an obligation to report in the public interest. The oath of secrecy suggests that Buhari and his government, not the media, are hypersensitive to an open and accountable government.