First democratic president Bakili Muluzi resisted it. The late president Bingu wa Mutharika would have none of it.
On the other hand, dispatched former president Joyce Banda made a lot of promises and noise about it that gave the impression that she was seriously trying to have it enacted, but did nothing.
By assenting to the Access to Information Bill (ATI), President Peter Mutharika may just have started building an enduring legacy as the leader who was bold enough—despite his personal reservations with the piece of legislation—to pass a law that could truly empower citizens, give real meaning to transparency and accountability and which takes our nascent democracy to one of the highest levels globally.
I know that Mutharika faced a lot of pressure to push for the law. The European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK) and other donors dangled carrots and sticks to the administration while the freedom of expression crowd also lobbied hard for the then Bill to be turned into law.
As a cynic, I may even go as far as suggesting that with all the dramatic controversy surrounding his administration—the maize issue, bad economy and a few other scandals—this may just be a clever way of trying to change the political narrative by assenting to a law that would excite the media, the civil society and donors.
While that may well be the case, we cannot take away from Mutharika’s legacy the fact that he was the President who cleared the legal thorns to make ATI a reality.
But assenting to a law is one thing and having the political will and courage to enforce it is another.
The President has to strongly demonstrate that he is committed to operationalising this legislation.
Moreover, this law will bring in major changes in the way government officials handle information.
Thus, the first step would be for government to design and implement an effective change management strategy that helps secure the buy in of top leaders in the public service as well as those workers at operational level.
Part of the plan should be change the culture at Capital Hill and other government establishments in Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).
Clinging to the old age attitude of “this is how we do things around here” will not deliver the ATI that the country’s citizenry wants.
The President should, therefore, lead by example in instilling this new culture by being open with information. That means ending those little episodes of taking leave that he is going to the United States for the United Nations General Assembly then disappearing from the face of the earth for weeks only to resurface with a troubled and troubling arm having kept the country in the dark for ages.
Most importantly, this culture should be spread to the remotest public offices such as schools, clinics, agriculture field offices and other public institutions in communities because that is where ATI is needed most.
There will also be need to have clear institutional arrangements for the facilitation of ATI. The earlier we have these institutional arrangements the better for the law to be fully implemented otherwise the President may have assented to the law, but stonewall it by not putting in place systems and institutional set ups that ease up the work.
It is also important to know that having the ATI in place is simply one step. South Africa has had a freedom of information law for decades, but citizens still struggle to access the information they want due to several encumbrances, some of them silently built into the law.
You should be prepared for legal fights to get some of the information because some folks in government won’t just change their secretive ways forever, especially in a country where dishonesty among public officials is very high.
But I am happy that at least we now have a tool with which we can take the fight to government officials who want to deny citizens their constitutional right to information.
There will also be need now for the champions of this law—CSOs, the media, donors and even government—to come up with a comprehensive and harmonised communication strategy to bring awareness and knowledge to the masses on how this law will work, the procedures to be followed and the doors to knock at.
Arm the people with knowledge with which to fight for their rights.