The Right to Information in Africa: Five Years of Dramatic Change

As the rights revolution unfolded in Africa over the past two decades, one area in particular lagged behind: the right to information. Just five years ago, only four African countries—South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe and Uganda—had freedom of information laws. The idea that citizens with access to information could play a significant role in promoting open and equitable governance was not, it seems, enthusiastically embraced by those in power.

But over the past five years, there has been some dramatic movement, at least on the statute books. New freedom of information laws have been adopted by Ethiopia, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria and Tunisia; similar legislation is presently in advanced stages or nearing adoption in several other African countries, including Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Zambia.

And next year this process could get a significant boost. In 2013, Africa’s regional human rights commission will hopefully approve a model freedom of information (FoI) law, which will provide a basic template for individual countries who want to enact their own. The effort to adopt this standard is the result of an unusual advocacy partnership, which brought together the commission’s special rapporteur on the right of access to information and a civil society coalition led by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights.            

This effort can be traced back to November 2007. Then, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights resolved to expand the mandate of its existing special rapporteur on freedom of expression to include an additional mandate, covering the right of access to information in Africa. Pansy Tlakula, a South African lawyer, was chosen to implement this new joint mandate.

By far the most ambitious project she has so far undertaken was the convening of the process for the adoption of the Model FoI Law for Africa. When the commission gave her the authority to proceed with this project in 2010, many felt that this was more an exhortation in hope than expectation.

But Ms Tlakula has delivered. By 2011, an initial draft of the model law was put out for consultation. In October this year, the African Commission reviewed the draft model law at its 52nd ordinary session in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire; it provided useful feedback to the special rapporteur and her project team on the basis of which the draft is currently being finalized. The commission is expected to schedule the draft model law for final consideration and possible adoption sometime in 2013.

This rapid progress was supported by Ms Tlakula’s decision to seek the support of civil society groups and networks: she asked the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria to lead the technical process of writing the model law; the Open Society Justice Initiative helped organize consultations and assistance from a range of civil society organizations.  

The resulting draft law comprises nine parts, made up of 107 Sections/Articles. Among its most salient features: it affirms the existence of the public’s right to know; expands the scope of this right beyond public institutions to include private institutions that utilize public funds, provide public services or perform public functions or where such information is required for the protection of human rights; mandates the proactive disclosure of certain categories of information; establishes timelines for response to requests for information; and provides an architecture for access to information (ATI) oversight mechanisms to ensure effective and prompt resolution of ATI related disputes.

The process of preparation of the draft model law has already yielded two far-reaching and complementary outcomes. First, the draft model law has already been influential in on-going processes of preparing FoI laws in some African countries, including Botswana, Egypt, Ghana, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Kenya, and South Sudan. In Namibia, it was used as a ready source in preparing ATI draft legislation now under consideration for enactment. Secondly, this process has also resulted in the creation of a genuinely African movement for access to information with deep roots across the continent, drawing participation from government institutions, civil society, development institutions, the media and academic institutions.

With these developments, the future of effective citizenship participation in government in Africa founded on the right of access to information looks exciting. Enacting a new law is only the first part. It is to be hoped that the special rapporteur, and this growing ATI movement in Africa inspired by her, will turn their attention to the effective implementation of this new raft of ATI laws on the continent. 

6 Comments

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Brilliant piece. I thank the authors of this post for providing such an uplifting story of movement building in Africa with results. I hope that in time we will get to hear accounts of other movements in other areas too. Let's look forward and work for as well to the adoption and implementation of more FoI laws in Africa.

I'm a human rights defender from Cameroon in Africa.Cameroon is one the countries which still has a very long way to go for the right to information.
Getting access to information in Cameroon is a taboo.We are calling on the Open Soceity Justice Initiative to come to our help.Cameroonians dont have access to both new and old laws enacted.Human Rights is violated when people don't know the laws of the land.There is no just legislation in Cameroon.

Dear Ngoh Thomas,

Thank you for taking an interest in the subject of access to information generally and to work of the Open Society Justice Initiative in particular. There is considerable work going on on access to information in Cameroon. Citizens Governance Initiatives (CGI) in Yaounde, are our partners and have done considerable work to popularise access to information in Cameroon. They use a mixture of instruments including para-legals and administrative procedures. Only last week, CGI held the second edition of the Transparency and Access to Information Investigative Reporting (TAIGO) awards in Yaounde, which aims to promote access to information in collaboration with the media. CGI's website is available at www.citizens-governance.org. You can also contact me on chidi.odinkalu@opensocietyfoundations.org and we can help to link you up to the impressive body of advocates for access to information in Cameroon. Thank you once again for your interest.

Best

Chidi

Thank you for highlighting this positive trend in Africa. While I view the enactment of Freedom of Information Laws by these African Countries including mine (Nigeria) as a laudable development, more work remains to be done in the area of sensitization of both the populace and all stakeholders to ensure full understanding of the rights and obligations created by these laws. This is the only way to guarantee the effectiveness of these legislations.

Thanks for the comment Angela. We agree! You may be interested in a video we are currently working on and which we will post in a few weeks looking at the work of an information commissioner in India, who is involved in the practical business of implmenting FOI requests from citizens under India's FOI laws. It's an intersting example of one model of implementation.

Best wishes, Jonathan Birchall, Communications Officer

i am so thankful for the post, more so that botswana is currently experiencing lack of freedom to to journalists and Botswana is not a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), where with the aid of detailed discussion; explain (1) how the enactment of Freedom of Information Law would help the country prepare to gain admittance into the OGP (2) help the country leverage the management of public sector information. Pay particular attention to the key requirements for membership into the OGP.

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