Have ATI laws improved democratic governance and reduced corruption in West Africa? The evidence is humbling

Two-thirds of countries in West Africa have adopted Access to Information (ATI) laws. These laws are supposed to remove barriers to public access to information, improve transparency and accountability in governance, and help reduce public sector corruption. But has the adoption of ATI laws by West African countries contributed to or resulted in improved democratic governance, transparency, accountability and reduced public sector corruption? Our Executive Director, Sulemana Braimah, explores this question and highlights what the MFWA is doing to promote public access to governance information in West Africa.

The adoption of Access to Information (ATI) laws represents a noteworthy milestone for transparency and accountability in governance. By extension, such laws are also significant for fighting public sector corruption. This is because ATI laws are regarded as sunshine laws that should ordinarily enable people to seek and receive information about various governance issues about how their resources are utilised by those in authority.

As observed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “the right to access information is an essential part of open government. It enables citizens to participate more fully in public life, it helps combat corruption and protects citizens’ rights.” The importance of ATI to democratic governance is, for example, highlighted in paragraph 3 of the preamble to Liberia’s Freedom of Information Act (2010), which acknowledges that “access to information is indispensable to genuine democracy and good governance.”

Given the great potential of ATI laws to improve governance, the passage of such laws is often considered a demonstration of some level of willingness on the part of state leaders to be more transparent and accountable to the people. This explains why the adoption of an ATI law by a country is often celebrated by governance and anti-corruption activists as a major boost for transparency and accountability.

At the moment, West Africa has the largest number of countries that have adopted Access to Information (ATI) laws in Africa compared to the other regional blocs on the continent. Ten out of the 15 ECOWAS member states have adopted laws that are supposed to remove barriers to public access to information and guarantee the fundamental rights of access to information held by public institutions.

Liberia and Guinea were the first in the region to adopt ATI laws in 2010. Nigeria and Niger followed in 2011, then Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire in 2013. Burkina Faso and Togo adopted their laws in 2015 and 2016 respectively, while Ghana and The Gambia adopted their respective laws in 2019 and 2021 respectively.

But has the adoption of ATI laws by West African countries contributed to, or resulted in improvement in democratic governance, transparency, accountability and reduction in corruption? Unfortunately, the evidence so far does not reveal any positive impact of ATI laws on governance and anti-corruption in the region.

As far as governance is concerned, despite an impressive progress towards democratisation over the last two decades, West Africa is currently suffering from severe democratic turbulence characterised by an accelerated retrogression of the marginal democratic gains that had been made over the past two decades.

Citizens participation in governance and respect for fundamental rights to free expression and access to information are suffering from increasing and routine restrictions. In an article published by Freedom House, the authors highlight  West Africa as the region with the fastest decline in political rights and civil liberties in 2019, which the authors described as an “alarming development.”

In Freedom House’s Freedom of the World report for 2020, it notes that out of the countries that witnessed the largest year-on-year score declines around the world in 2019, five of them are in West African namely Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Nigeria. Of these five, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Nigeria have ATI laws.

After years of democratic rebuilding, Mali and Guinea are back to military rule. Cote d’Ivoire and Togo are saddled with third and fourth term governments respectively. In Benin, the National Assembly is monolithic and bereft of opposition party representation. This follows a hurriedly-passed law, which introduced new eligibility conditions that prevented opposition candidates from contesting the country’s 2019 Parliamentary elections.  Acts of repression and other autocratic tendencies have become prevalent in nearly all countries. Evidently, the region’s admired democratic progress is severely under manifest threat from multiple fronts.

While the adoption of ATI laws may have limited influence on the general democratic ethos of nations, it is believed that they do have a direct impact on improving the fight against corruption and enhancing accountability. However, despite having many countries with ATI laws, corruption remains perhaps the most virulent obstacle to development in West Africa.

As observed in a report by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), corruption is still a major problem across West Africa. Indeed, the performance of West African countries as far as corruption is concerned, has remained below the global average.

Analysis of data from Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for the last few years, for example, does not show that countries that have adopted ATI laws in the region have experienced any significant improvement in their corruption scores. In fact, in several cases, the levels of corruption (per the TI’s CPI scores) gets worse in countries after the adoption of ATI laws. And no country with an ATI law in the region has ever scored up to the half mark of 50.

Liberia, for example, adopted its law in 2010. In 2012, when the law took full effect with all structures in place, the country’s CPI score was 41 out of 100 and that score has remained the country’s best performance since then. In 2013, the score dropped to 38. It further dropped to 37 for three consecutive years (2014, 2015, 2016). In 2017, there was a further drop to 31, then a point up the following year to 32. For 2019 and 2020, the score dropped again to 28 out of 100.

The case of Nigeria is not different. In 2012 ( a year after the adoption of the law), Nigeria’s CPI score was 27 out of 100. The following year, the score dropped to 25 and regained two points again back to 27 in 2014. In 2015, the score dropped to 26. In 2016 country gained two points scoring 28, which remains the country’s best score for the last ten years. In 2017 and 2018, the score was back to 27, with further drops in 2019 and 2020 to 26 and 25 respectively.

The pattern is the same for Sierra Leone, which adopted its law in 2013. In the year the law was adopted, the country’s score was 30 out of 100. There was a marginal improvement to 31 in 2014 and a drop back to 29 in 2015. For 2016, 2017 and 2018, the score stayed at 30 with marginal improvements in 2019 and 2020 when the score moved up to 33 in both years.

The case of post-ATI law CPI scores among francophone countries in West Africa is relatively better compared with those of the Anglophone countries. While many of the francophone countries score lower than their Anglophone peers, whereas the scores of anglophone countries tend to dip post the adoption of ATI law, francophone countries experience marginal improvements in scores post-adoption of ATI laws.

Cote d’Ivoire adopted its ATI law in 2013. In the year the law was adopted, the country’s score was 27 out of 100. The score jumped to 32 for both 2014 and 2015 and saw a further increase to 34 in 2016. In 2017, there was a further improvement in the score to 36 and a reduction by a point to 35 for both 2018 and 2019; and a point increase to 36 in 2020. Overall, the scores remain abysmal and the pattern is such that any marginal increments in scores cannot be attributed to the existence of ATI laws.

In the case of Guinea, in 2012 (two years after the adoption of ATI law), the country’s CPI score was 24 out of 100. The score was the same in 2013 and marginally increased to 25 in 2014 and 2015. It further increased to 27 in 2016 and 2017; with a further increase to 28 in 2018. In 2019, there was a further single point increase to 29 before dropping back to 28 in 2020. In this case, therefore, the scores for the various years did not dip below the base year score of 24. Despite what appears to be marginal increases, it is important to underscore the fact that the country has failed to score even 30% of the total possible score of 100.

In Niger, where an ATI law was adopted in 2011, the 2012 CPI score was 33. The score marginally appreciated in 2013 and 2014 to 34 and 35 respectively. In 2015 the score dropped back to 34 and increased to 35 again in 2016. In 2017, there was a drop to 33, picking up a point in 2018 to 34 before dropping to 32 for both 2019 and 2020.

Indeed, the performance of some other countries in the region that are yet to have ATI laws further highlights the lack of impact of ATI laws on levels of corruption or perceived corruption.

For example, despite not having an ATI law, Senegal has seen consistent improvement in its CPI score since 2012 and outperforms peers with ATI laws. In 2012, Senegal’s score was 36. The score jumped to 41 in 2013; 43 in 2014; 44 in 2015 and stagnated at 45 from 2016 to 2020.

In Ghana, the best performing years in the last decade in terms of the CPI scores, have been prior to the adoption of the country’s ATI law in 2019, which became operational in 2020. In 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, Ghana scored 45, 46, 48 and 47 respectively before dropping to 43 in 2016. However, in 2019 when the law was adopted and 2020 when it became operational, Ghana scored 41 and 43 respectively.

For now, the evidence suggests that while ATI laws have great potential for improving governance, the mere adoption of such laws is just necessary but not sufficient to guarantee good democratic governance, promote transparency and accountability, and reduce corruption.

What is critical is the effective application and compliance with the law after its adoption.

For an efficient implementation of ATI laws to happen, a number of conditions including the following six conditions are critical:

First, members of the public must understand the law; appreciate how it enables or enhances their right of access to information; and how they can assert that right to demand transparency and accountability in governance. This requires continuous capacity building, awareness creation and public education about the law and the opportunities it presents for enhancing governance transparency and accountability. It also requires support for members of the public, especially marginalised groups, to assert their right through the filing of requests and doing follow-ups on requests till information is accessed.

Second, public institutions that are information holders must understand the law and how its compliance helps to build public trust and confidence in governance. They need to also understand how compliance with the law engenders public support for government policies and programmes including the willingness among members of the public to fulfil their tax obligations.

Third, beyond understanding the law and the willingness to comply with the law, the necessary resources (financial, logistical and human) and right record keeping approaches must be in place to facilitate compliance with the law. For example, trained information officers must be in place; they must have the required logistics (computers and internet etc) to operate. Institutions also need to have the right filing, archiving and bureaucratic systems in place to facilitate easy access to records, and as much as possible, provide proactive disclosure of information.

Fourth, the implementing bodies (often an ATI Commission) mandated to promote the law and enforce compliance, must assert their independence from governmental control. Such bodies need to also engage with members of the public to boost public confidence as well as deal expeditiously with cases of appeal brought before it by members of the public. Such institutions need to be adequately resourced by the state to play their role.

Fifth, the Law Courts, which are often the last resort for enforcement of rights under the law, need to expeditiously deal with complaints filed before it and ensure that good judgements are given and are fully enforced. This requires capacity building for judges too.

Sixth, and perhaps more importantly, journalists and their media organisations must be at the forefront of contributing towards the attainment of the above five conditions. This, they can do through consistent public educations and awareness through routine programming and reporting on the law and developments around implementation.  Journalists should also be able to take advantage of the law to access vital pieces of information that are critical for their reporting, especially investigative reporting. This, however, requires that first of all, journalists and their editors have a good understanding of the law and appreciate its utility for the performance of their watchdog role.

On the basis of the foregoing, the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is ramping up its work on Access to Information across the region through the following interventions:

  1. Improving the capacity of the media to lead in providing public education and awareness about ATI laws, their utility for members of public and how members of the public can assert their right of access to information under the law. So far, training programmes have been held for journalists in Ghana, Cote d’ Ivoire and Niger and a guidebook for journalists
  2. Empowering journalists through micro-grants to enable them utilise ATI laws for investigative reporting on transparency, accountability and anti-corruption issues. Such support include support for litigation in cases of information requests denials.
  3. Enhancing public access to information at the local levels by setting up local ATI citizens groups in partnership with local community groups; training them about the law and partnering them with local media for advocacy and utilisation of ATI laws to access information on governance issues at the local levels.
  4. Conducting routine research on constraints and barriers to public access to information and ways of removing such barriers to improve public access to governance information, to enhance citizens participation in governance and improve responsiveness by authorities.

Continuous engagement with authorities and other stakeholders (through public forums and advocacy publications on access to information.