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The Need for a Freedom of Information Act

Freedom of Information Act

The recent revelations of what look like corruption and nepotism in the oil and gas industry in the sister Republic of Senegal has raised eyebrows in The Gambia as well. This is because among the companies said to have been entangled in the saga, British Petroleum (BP), is one that signed contracts with The Gambia Government as well.

Given that we don’t have very strong institutions, yet, it is worrisome that this has been the case. If any form of impropriety were to be unearthed here it will be almost impossible to get to the bottom of it. We do not have the wherewithal to avoid such corrupt and nepotistic actions effectively.

Thus, one of the things the Gambian media and civil society need to push (or push harder) for now is Freedom of Information (FOI) law. This will enable citizens to obtain all relevant information in a timely and accurate manner so that citizens can analyze and give their informed opinions on relevant issues.

The absence of FOI is hampering the efforts of civil society and the media to hold government and government officials to account. Since the coming into office of the current government, a number of agreements/contracts have been entered into by the country without citizens having full access to the details of such contracts or agreements.

Recently, a government official advised me to seek information from the relevant authorities when the need arises. I agree that this can and should be done by activists and journalists, but I still have two issues with the method.

One; the citizens should not have to suffer any inconveniences in order to obtain such information. In most cases, information should be made readily available to the public so long as it does not compromise national security. The second one is that many officials are still buried in the past – being very niggardly when it comes to information sharing particularly with journalists.

Among the agreements/contracts that government entered into without fully disclosing the details to the public are the supply of electricity to NAWEC by Senegal’s SENELEC. Granted, this agreement has been beneficial (at least from what one can see openly), citizens do not fully understand how this was informed.

Another one is the agreement the government entered into with the European Union (EU) on tuna fishing. This agreement was also not made completely public for citizens to know all about it. Certainly, the few details that trickled in, though murky, were hotly debated by members of the public. Many were of the view that the agreement entailed huge loses to the Gambian nation. But how can we be sure if we do not have the details?

The latest one – and perhaps the most controversial – is the agriculture project of the Gambia Armed Forces (GAF) which has recently been given a nod by the government. It is not clear whether this agreement has been signed or it’s just a statement of intention that has been made public.

It is high time that we had a Freedom of information Act.

Musa Bah is a teacher at Nusrat Senior Secondary School. He is also a
writer, novelist, poet and social commentator. He is currently the
vice president of the Writers’ Association of The Gambia.

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