The authorities should do more to safeguard sensitive documents from being leaked to the public
Increasingly, the machinery of government in Nigeria seems to be finding it difficult to protect the confidentiality of information used in policymaking and administration. In the past few years, high profile documents have been flowing into the public domain due to unauthorised leaks, some of them from the most unexpected of quarters. Apparently in the bid to score political points, many of our public officials have unwittingly created a situation in which no official document is sacred. This is a worrisome and dangerous threat to our national security.
What compounds the problem is that in our country, it is those charged with protecting sensitive materials that give them out either for malicious intent against other persons or to justify their own actions. Presidential memos, reports by the Police and Army, documents from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Department of State Services (DSS), Customs and Excise papers and even reports of ongoing investigations by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) are leaked with impunity. Today, unlike at any other time in our national history, any and every document can be given out for splashing on the pages of newspapers.
We are mindful of the fact that the emergence of Julie Asange’s Wikileaks and indeed the internet has engendered a situation where leaking “state secrets” and other data and information considered “highly confidential” is now almost a fad of sorts. The United States Government was, in 2010, embarrassed by the leakage of its military and diplomatic cables by Wikileaks. This has made every country to guard with greater care information that could compromise national security or the well-being of their citizens.
What is bizarre in our own case is that it is actually those who are charged with safeguarding sensitive documents that often leak them to the public. This is reprehensible in the extreme. We have had cases of information released about people accused of corrupt practices ahead of trial only to emerge victorious at the courts. This is what happens in a milieu where professionalism and responsible statecraft are thrown to the dogs by agencies of state. Naming and shaming may have its uses, but it most often compromises legal actions when pre-emptive leakages transfer serious matters to cheaply sought public verdict. Yet, as we keep reminding our anti-corruption agencies, propaganda cannot substitute for serious investigation and diligent prosecution.
For sure, there have always been leaks in government. And it is not peculiar to Nigeria. Government, all over the world, sometimes indulges in leaks for different reasons: To test the waters, to justify an action already taken or indeed to communicate information to the public in a clandestine manner. But these are exceptions rather than the norm. In the case of Nigeria, the flow of unauthorised information to the public domain is now almost at the discretion of everyone in government.
We reaffirm our commitment to transparency and the right of the public to know about the goings-on in government. We also uphold the Freedom of Information Act which gives Nigerians the legal right to ask for and access information and documents held by the government or its agencies in the bid to promote such openness. We, however, frown at the outpouring of official documents in a manner that practically subverts the state.
We must remind public officials that these leaks have costs and consequences. They are also taking a toll on the reputation of the outgoing Muhammadu Buhari administration. It is therefore time our new crop of officials realised that unauthorised release of confidential information discredits the government, weakens the decision-making process, and helps to undermine national security.