Why public accountability matters to Nigeria’s national security

Nigerian sailors with the Special Boat Service. Source: US Department of Defense/Flickr

Underlying every call for public accountability is an understanding that the quality of our lives matter. When we apply our minds to the constitutional fact that the provision of welfare and security is the primary function of government, the need for a sense of public accountability in the security sector is amplified. More so, the reality of current security challenges in Nigeria raises questions about military operations; questions we would have never dared to ask in the past.

A recent Freedom of Information compliance ranking carried out by procurement monitors across Nigerian security sector institutions provides a sense of the current practice of disclosure in the security sector. The survey assessed levels of access to procurement related information held by 14 security sector institutions. It revealed that none of these institutions proactively provided any details of their public expenditure. While the Ministry of Defense and the Nigerian Navy provided partial details of their public expenditure on request, none of the other twelve institutions provided any of these details. Although the Office of the National Security Adviser (NSA) responded to a request for information on their capital expenditure, the response was only to inform requesters that public expenditure details of the NSA’s office were exempt by statute from disclosure.

Three security sector institutions responded in between five and 90 days while the remaining 11 institutions did not respond at all. Neither were details of their public expenditure to be found in the public domain. Overall, this is how the institutions were scored:

While the security sector keeps the public informed through channels such as the defence radio and occasional press statements, it is clear from the rankings that the practice of disclosure is the exception rather than the norm.

However the public interest in national security demands that defence institutions uphold the practise of disclosure over and above secrecy. This extends to disclosure of vital information on public spending, the disclosure of which is likely to deepen trust and confidence in the operations of the defence sector and deflect rumour mills to the contrary.

In several respects, Nigeria’s 2011 Freedom of Information Act sets the tone for disclosure of information held by security agencies. The test is clear; information may only be exempt from disclosure where it could cause substantial injury to international affairs and the defence of the nation or where any such injury outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

Public accountability within the defence sector goes beyond intermittent public finance disclosure and requires a comprehensive system for classifying various categories of information held within the defence sector.

Some of the features of a publicly accessible classification system would include a mechanism for proactively disclosing certain categories of information, complete with timelines for updating the information, justification for information that is withheld from disclosure, maximum timelines for withholding certain categories of information and circumstances that would trigger a review of classification systems.

Establishing such a system within the defence sector would enable:

  • the establishment of clear documented processes for the arrest, transfer and prosecution and treatment of accused persons;
  • the operation of clear procedures for dealing with recaptured prisoners;
  • the development of a records management systems that clearly states how information held by the military would be documented, kept, disseminated and to whom it would be disseminated among many others.

The need for public accountability within the security and defence sector is straightforward. Public accountability needs to be institutionalised beyond the integrity of individuals. It also needs to apply uniformly across various units in the security sector. Moreover, the practise of disclosure acknowledges that people matter and should have the opportunity and the space to participate in their government. The defence sector, executing the primary function of keeping the peace, needs to fully integrate this in its practices.

Seember Nyager is an open government fellow with Code for Africa and Open Knowledge advocating for the adoption of open contracting data standards in Nigeria. She is contributing this article to the Security Sector Accountability Project implemented by Premium Times with support from OSIWA.