22 January 2011
The Wikileaks revelations which took everybody by storm last year has certainly altered – or perhaps simply extended – our concepts of what should and shouldn’t be put in the public domain. The United Nations has come out vigorously in defence of Julian Assange, the Australian founder, who the United States would like to prosecute on charges of treason.
That the U.S. should be contemplating such a drastic action seems a little extraordinary, not only in terms of its own history but also in relation to the present incumbent. It was an early American president, Thomas Jefferson, who famously remarked that if he was forced to choose between government and a free press he would unhesitatingly opt for the latter. And it was President Barack Obama who declared – during his campaign – that he would run the most open and transparent government in his country’s history.
According to the statement by the UN, “(t)he right to access information held by public authorities” is a “fundamental human right” which enables citizens (not subjects!) to “know what governments are doing on their behalf.” This is so, it adds, “given its importance to the consolidation, functioning and preservation of democratic regimes.” It goes without saying, of course, that there will always be areas where some form of secrecy is necessary, most notably on grounds of national security. The UN itself recognises this will always be so, with the rider that, “(s)ecrecy laws should define national security precisely and indicate clearly the criteria which should be used in determining whether or not information can be declared secret.”
Much has been made by governments across the world that the Wikileaks‘ action did, indeed, constitute a threat to national security – the United Kingdom, for instance, was as vociferous in its condemnation as the U.S. – and claimed that the lives of innocent people were put in jeopardy by what they were pleased to call Assange’s irresponsible decision. However, what they signally failed to do was substantiate these claims from what, by all accounts, were simply unguarded statements by American officials concerning their host countries and the men and women who rule them. Embarrassing, perhaps, but that was about all.
Which brings us to our own shores, and with it the stubborn refusal by the National Assembly to pass the Freedom of Information Act, which has been pending since the country’s return to democracy in 1999. Given the approaching elections, we can be sure that nothing will now happen until the start of the new dispensation come May 29. But the fault is not all with the federal authorities. There is nothing to stop state governments from passing their own acts, especially those which pride themselves on their “progressive” agenda.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where authoritarian structures and ways of thinking still predominate. Worse yet, according to Wikileaks, we know now what many suspected all along: that at least one multinational, in this case Shell Petroleum Development Company, has infiltrated its spooks into the highest reaches of government in order to ensure that policies inimical to its own economic interests are not jeopardised by rules and regulations which might serve the greater interests of the Nigerian people from whose soil they make their fortunes. Doubtless Shell, in common with governments, would rather this information remains secret even as it potentially harms the national security of the 150 million Nigerians who never voted for them, and whose “independence” 50 years ago now looks more like a charade, if not a grand deception. Well, the U.S. might raise the spectre of treason, but how then are we to characterise the revelations which emanated from Shell and which, by implication, extend to our own government officials who permit them such irresponsible power?
A related problem is our stubborn refusal to guarantee another, equally important right: the right to free and universal education. Without literacy the right to access information is severely curtailed, (or especially) during election time. This is the position a great many Nigerians find themselves in and why our democracy continues to remain nascent, as the saying has it. Yes, we need a Freedom of Information Act, and the U.S. itself (along with South Africa) provides a model for just such a bill, but it cannot exist in isolation from the other rights which guarantee it. Let us hope, as we move into a new dispensation which we have been assured will indeed be free and fair, that a new crop of politicians will emerge at both the federal and state levels who will, at last, put the interests of Nigerians ahead of their own comforts. Only then will we be able to talk of Nigeria becoming one of the top 20 nations in the world.
Sweet Crude is the best documentary on a social resistance movement that I have ever seen. While The Weather Underground is a close runner-up, Sweet Crude stands high above the rest as a powerful, incredibly well-made film that picks through the multiple layers of a movement’s history, its divisions, failures, triumphs, tactics, and philosophies. The movement comprises the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta and their decades-long resistance to Shell in the region: here.
SOUTH AFRICA: Shell Oil Looking to Drill the Karoo’s Resources: here.
It’s an old story: oil companies increase gas prices and their profits soar. But rarely do we get an inside view of how they manipulate markets to drive up prices, and even rarer still an opportunity to stop it from happening. This time, Big Oil has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar as they scheme to hike America’s oil bill by $4 billion every year. This time, we have the industry documents that prove it: here.