Media Rights Agenda (MRA) today criticized the action of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in compelling its staff to subscribe to an oath of secrecy, describing the move as an egregious contradiction for an institution established to promote and defend human rights, including citizens’ right to information, and a government supposedly crusading against public sector corruption through an open government.
In a statement by its Freedom of Information Programme Manager, Mr. Ridwan Sulaimon, MRA said it was a tragic irony that an institution like the Commission which ought to be a shining example to other public institutions in promoting, defending and enforcing public access to information under the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, as well as the Freedom of Expression rights of its staff and other Nigerians, was in the vanguard of such self-ridicule.
By a memorandum dated July 3, 2019, signed by Mr. Ibe Obidigwein, on behalf of its Executive Secretary, the Commission asked all its staff members to sign an oath of secrecy and submit same before July 10, 2019.
The memo, apparently sent to all the commission’s departmental and sectional heads as well as its offices in various States, contained what was described as “a copy of the commission’s oath of secrecy” and asked them to make copies available to all staff of their departments, units or state offices to sign.
The memo directed that all signed oaths of secrecy were to be collated and returned to the Human Resources Management department on or before July 10, 2019.
Mr. Sulaimon described the development as “the latest in a series of institutional crises of identity, role and functions” on the part of the Commission that led MRA to induct it into the “Freedom of Information Hall of Shame” on September 3, 2018, following its persistent failure to comply with its obligations under the FOI Act, which MRA viewed as undermining in its fundamental duty of enhancing the exercise and enjoyment of the guarantees of human rights in Nigeria.
He restated MRA’s advice to the commission on the occasion of its induction into the FOI Hall of Shame, noting that human rights abuses thrive in atmosphere of secrecy and that by its attitude in failing to give effect to the spirit and letters of the FOI Act, it was undermining the very reason for its existence which is to advance respect for human rights in Nigeria and to protect the fundamental rights of citizens, including those recognized in the Constitution as well as in regional and international human rights instruments, such as public right to information.
Mr. Sulaimon added: “There is no doubt that asking staff of NHRC to subscribe to an oath of secrecy will seriously undermine the objectives of the Freedom of Information Act, which has as its guiding philosophy, the principle of maximum disclosure. It will also make nonsense of Nigeria’s membership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which is founded on the principles of transparency, accountability and citizen engagement in governance; while also impeding the Federal Government’s avowed efforts to stamp out corruption in Nigeria.
“MRA hereby calls on the Commission to immediately reverse its directive asking its staff to subscribe to an oath of secrecy, withdraw the document already circulated to all staff, and take urgent steps to redeem itself by returning to a path of honour and seeking to play a leading role in all matters pertaining to the promotion, defence and enforcement of human rights in Nigeria.”