Dealing With Disclosure In Nigeria’s Security Sector -By Seember Nyager

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Seember Nyager

Seember Nyager

 

…the blanket application of secrecy rules to public resource utilisation in the defence and security sector may be at the cost of the security we yearn for.

In 2014, an officer from the Nigerian defence sector honoured an invitation to a public gathering on the Freedom of Information. By honouring that invitation, the defence sector sent out a clear message on its willingness to engage with the people. What was most striking about the meeting, however, was that the keynote address publicly delivered by the defence official had a confidentiality clause written all over it with a caption forbidding public disclosure. It was not clear what this ban on disclosure really meant because this was a public presentation in a public gathering that was made up of Nigerians and foreigners. In fact, this same keynote address was made available to the press. The unconsciousness with which non-disclosure clauses are used goes to show how entrenched secrecy is in our national defence and security sector. In addition, it shows the tendency for arbitrary application of such rules even when clearly unnecessary and unjustifiable. Although of no consequence in this illustration, the blanket application of secrecy rules to public resource utilisation in the defence and security sector may be at the cost of the security we yearn for. There is a case being made for mechanisms of public accountability in the Nigerian defence and security sector; for clear rules to guide disclosure and clear rules and justifications for non-disclosure.

The defence and security sector requires its own sets of rules around public accountability because several laws on public accountability are not fully applicable to the sector.

The defence and security sector is the nation’s biggest spender. The estimated 964 billion naira allocated to the security and defence sector makes up a quarter of the entire Nigerian budget. Given the need to contain the insurgencies engulfing the nation and the need to prevent further insurgent acts, the high cost of procuring security is to be expected. Indeed, more resources are likely to be required to carry out various functions related to intelligence gathering. There is a challenge, however, in the fact that at any stage in the public resource utilisation process, the “Top Secret” card can be pulled out and applied. This is only possible because there is no clear, publicly available guide on how disclosure works within the defence and security sector.

The defence and security sector requires its own sets of rules around public accountability because several laws on public accountability are not fully applicable to the sector. For example, the law which requires probity and accountability in the procurement and contracting process is inapplicable to defence procurement processes. Section 15(2) of the Public Procurement Act 2007 provides that “the provisions of this Act shall not apply to the procurement of special goods, works and services involving national defence or national security unless the President’s express approval has been first sought and obtained.” In essence, the process of awarding defence related contracts is by law, expressly excluded from scrutiny.

Similarly, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2011 exempts from disclosure information that may be injurious to national defence. Section 11(1) of the FOIA provides that a public institution may deny an application for information, the disclosure of which may be injurious to the conduct of international affairs and the defence of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Although both legislations limit the level of probity and accountability in the defence sector, both have a window within which public accountability ought to be attained. One of the mechanisms required to make this functional are clear rules guiding disclosure within the security and defence sector.

…when it comes to public expenditure, the injury is in the non-disclosure of such information because it provides room for multiple claims that cannot be verified, breeds suspicion, mistrust and encourages sabotage of National defence efforts.

The lack of clear, written, publicly available mechanisms guiding disclosure in the Nigerian defence sector makes it impossible to distinguish what can be disclosed and what cannot be disclosed. So what often occurs is that different institutions within the sector apply the unwritten rules of disclosure differently and different levels of accountability are witnessed. For example, whilst the Office of the National Security Adviser is unlikely to provide any information on details of their public expenditure, the Defence Headquarters may provide some details of their own expenditure.

What is more, it becomes difficult to tell what should really be considered under the umbrella of non-disclosure as a result of likely injury to national defence because agencies of government from the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) are relying on the blanket clause within the FOIA that protects national defence information to refuse public scrutiny of their projects. Such wide discretion in the application of unwritten rules around disclosure is prone to abuse.

There is no question that some information is very sensitive and its disclosure can be injurious to National defence; but a first step to accountability is being able to classify various types of information so that through a collective process, Nigerians understand classes of information that are likely to be disclosed and those that are unlikely to be disclosed.

With relation to public resource utilisation, there have been cases where the defence and security sector has publicly refuted claims on funds mismanagement and provided some perspective on how expensive security is. These public statements have placed monetary figures to the cost of providing welfare, the cost of purchasing certain items, etc. If such information can be provided in response to negative propaganda being spread about how resources in the defence sector are expended, then there is every reason for disclosure of such information to be standardised, made publicly and proactively available. In fact, when it comes to public expenditure, the injury is in the non-disclosure of such information because it provides room for multiple claims that cannot be verified, breeds suspicion, mistrust and encourages sabotage of National defence efforts.

There is no question that some information is very sensitive and its disclosure can be injurious to National defence; but a first step to accountability is being able to classify various types of information so that through a collective process, Nigerians understand classes of information that are likely to be disclosed and those that are unlikely to be disclosed. The lack of such standards provides the greatest room for abuse of discretion within the sector and every such abuse sabotages National security efforts and becomes the greatest injury to National defence.

This article is a contribution to the Security Sector Accountability Project implemented by Premium Times with support from OSIWA.

 

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