The age-long Right to Information (RTI) Bill, which has been described by many as the oldest Bill in Parliament, suffered a major defeat when the Sixth Parliament of the Fourth Republic of Ghana under the NDC-led administration failed to pass the Bill into law before its tenure lapsed on 7th January, 2016.
The Bill had undergone a thorough review process initiated by a bi-partisan Select Committee of Parliament (the Select Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs), including a review of all the concerns raised by the public on the Bill, but Parliament still could not pass the Bill into law despite several calls by CSOs and other well-meaning Ghanaians.
Observations in Parliament indicated that the Bill was stalled when Members of Parliament from the opposition (NPP) raised the issue of lack of quorum, making it difficult for proceedings to continue. Some MPs from the Majority side argued that their colleagues from the opposition deliberately frustrated the process so that their administration, having won the 2016 elections, would be the government to pass the Bill into law. But some MPs from the opposition argued that the NDC administration could have used their majority in Parliament to pass the law if indeed they were committed to passing the legislation. Whether or not Ghanaians are persuaded by these arguments depends on which side of the political divide one belongs to.
In the year 2012, the NDC government came into power with a promise in their Manifesto that the RTI Bill will be passed into law. The promises did not end only in the Manifesto but were also re-echoed in the State of the Nations address, on the floor of Parliament, at various international (UN) programmes and events as well as on discussion programmes in the media both locally and internationally. President Mahama categorically stated in one of his many speeches that “my government will be reckoned for passing the oldest Bill in Parliament” but after eight years in leadership, the government could not deliver on this promise. Many observers both at home and abroad have expressed their disappointment at the failure by the past government to pass this legislation particularly because the administration had several opportunities to pass the Bill but preferred to wait till the dying minutes. Speaking on News file on 24th December, 2016, about his low points for the year 2016, the Editor-in-Chief of the New Crusading Guide Newspaper, Mr. Kweku Baako Jnr. stated, “I will be damn damn disappointed if the RTI Bill is not passed by this Parliament” Similarly at the Fourth Global Summit of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) held in Paris, France from 7th – 9th December, 2016, it was observed rather sadly, that Ghana’s five year participation in the OGP process could not deliver the passage of the RTI law unlike in Kenya and Tanzania.
The failure to pass this legislation by the outgoing administration is particularly disheartening given the amount of resources, time and energy that was committed to its review and consideration processes by the 6th Parliament, in addition to the fact that a new Parliament under the new administration will have to commence fresh processes to enable the passage of the Bill; processes which may not be completed within the first four years.
The adoption of Access to Information (ATI) legislation has become a global movement with more than 100 countries (including countries from every region) having FOI laws in place. According to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) only a small minority of countries around the world (Africa and Arab Regions) still lack FOI recognition in their legislation. Africa joined the bandwagon when in the year 2000 South Africa became the first country to pass the law, followed by Angola in 2002 and Uganda in 2005. Since then, seventeen other countries have put in place the law including, Niger, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan to mention but a few. The advocacy became even more visible and strengthened with the official recognition by UNESCO on 17th November, 2015, of 28th September, as the International Day of Universal Access to Information (IDUAI).
In most African countries that have adopted the law, civil society actors played a key role in ensuring the adoption of the law/policies on ATI as well as in the review of such laws where they were already in existence. One such country that witnessed strong civil society advocacy is the Federal Republic of Nigeria, where after thirteen years of rigorous campaign, President Goodluck Jonathan before exiting office in 2011 signed the age long Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill into Law after it was passed by the then National Assembly. By passing the law, the former president together with the outgoing National Assembly opened up the democratic space for the involvement of Nigerian citizens’ in their governance. Today, one cannot refer to the FOI Act in Nigerian without the name ‘Goodluck Jonathan’. Another country which saw relentless struggle by CSOs to ensure the passage of the law is the Republic of Kenya. His Excellency, President Uhuru Kenyatta on 31st August, 2016, signed the ATI Bill into law bringing an end to the fifteen year struggle by CSOs to see greater access and transparency to government decision-making. The two leaders, unlike President Mahama, have left a legacy that will forever be remembered in Africa’s quest for open and transparent governance.
The Mahama-led administration was criticized for the many scandals that bedeviled the administration including the public perception that the 6th Parliament may not have effectively exercised its oversight role over the work of the Executive due to undue party partisanship. One would have thought that efforts by the administration to clear this strong negative perception would include the passage of a key anti-corruption tool – the RTI Bill. But unfortunately, the NDC administration led by President Mahama missed the opportunity of proving to the world and convincing some, if not all Ghanaians that their anti-corruption agenda was genuine.
On 12th May, 2016, the global torchlight was shown on corruption with the Anti-Corruption Summit held in London, United Kingdom. The Summit provided an opportunity for world leaders to showcase their commitment to the fight against corruption. Despite the proclaimed commitment to this fight, Ghana’s participation at the summit could not deliver the passage of the RTI Law back home.
In the month of September, the world again turned its attention to openness and transparency when on 26th September, 2016, the UNESCO, as part of the events to mark the first International Day for Universal Access to Information (officially 28th September) organized series of inspiring talks ‘International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) Talks’ on Access to Information. The main aim, as stated by UNESCO, of marking the IDUAI was to promote universal access to information through all platforms, as an essential means to achieving the 2030 Development Agenda and the Sustainable development Goals (SDGs). Interestingly, H. E President Mahama delivered the keynote speech at the event, however, his attendance and participation could not inspire Parliament to pass the RTI Bill.
In the midst of all these activities, the expectation by the international community and of course many Ghanaians was that the NDC-led administration would have passed the law having been actively engaged in these platforms, including signing on to the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Ghana’s involvement and participation in these international events and initiatives kept the country in the limelight and enabled the world to put its searchlight on the country’s efforts to pass the RTI legislation. Indeed, President John Dramani Mahama missed the opportunity to inscribe his name in the annals of Open Governments.
To better appreciate the efforts by the 6th Parliament and the NDC led administration to pass the RTI Bill into law, it will be useful to recount the events that took place from 2013, after the NDC won the 2012 elections. On 12th November, 2013, President Mahama tabled the RTI Bill, 2013 before the 6th Parliament. Upon introduction in Parliament, the Bill was referred to the Select Committee on Constitutional, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. The Committee held two meetings (in May and September 2014) with key stakeholders to review the content of the Bill and make recommendations for consideration by Parliament. Three months later, precisely on 17th December, 2014, the Select Committee tabled its report in Parliament with proposals for the amendment of all the problematic clauses identified by stakeholders. Following pressure from civil society, the Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Mrs. Marrieta Brew Appiah-Opong, on 25th June, 2015 (Six months after the Committee tabled its report) moved the motion for the second reading of the Bill. The second reading was concluded on 24th July, 2015 and the Bill was referred to the next stage in the Parliamentary process – the Consideration stage.
The consideration of the Bill witnessed even slower progress than previous stages. Parliament could not commence the consideration process until March 2016, (Eight months after the conclusion of the second reading). Discussions on the Bill witnessed several distractions and setbacks including the introduction by government of a new Bill ‘The Interception of Postal Packets and Telecommunication Messages Bill 2016’ (otherwise known as Spy Bill); a Bill which was nearly passed but for the public outcry. Consideration of the RTI Bill continued in May and October 2016 during the second and third sessions of Parliament respectively. In October specifically, the AG withdrew the old Bill and tabled a revised Bill (RTI Bill 2016) making the consideration and passage of the Bill much easier than it previously was. The AG specifically requested in writing to Parliament to consider the Bill under a certificate of urgency. Following her request, the new Bill was immediately referred to the Parliamentary Select Committee and the Committee with a sense of urgency completed its review processes and submitted its report within three days. But these notwithstanding, Parliament could not complete the consideration processes to enable the passage of the Bill before 7th January 2017.
These commendable efforts by the 6th Parliament should ordinarily have been commended by all Ghanaians particularly those who have been following the discourse and advocacy on RTI, but this is not the case. The failure to pass the Bill for eight years and the last minute push by MPs from the majority side, including the first ever public plea by the outgoing President for the passage of the Bill appeared to have irritated many, particularly MPs from the opposition, who suddenly realized that having won the 2016 elections, they now have an opportunity to make global history and therefore became very unwilling to let their opponents take that glory.
Having had the opportunity for eight years to pass the most valuable anti-corruption tool without success, how will anti-corruption crusaders and the international community rate President Mahama’s performance as one time President of Ghana? In discussing Ghana’s anti-corruption agenda and achievements, what will the 6th Parliament and the NDC led administration be remembered for? Clearly, it will not be as they had promised ‘the government that passed the oldest Bill in Parliament’
Written by Ugonna Ukaigwe
The author is a lawyer and a Project Consultant who consults for international, regional and national NGOs.
She currently coordinates the work of the Right to Information Coalition, Ghana