For the first time in over 10 years of non-stop advocacy and lobbying, Malawi is on the cusp of enacting an Access to Information (ATI) law. This moment has been a long time in the making and has seen its fair amount of hope and despair at various intervals. This moment is also about both history and the future.
As reported across various media, Cabinet recently approved the tabling of an ATI Bill, likely to be debated during the current sitting of Parliament, which started on Monday, 22 February. For this, President Peter Mutharika and his team must be commended, if for nothing else, then for firmly bringing the urgent issue of ATI into mainstream discussion once again.
The merits for enacting an ATI law have been documented, in depth, over the past decade-potential increase in levels of transparency and accountability featuring prominently as the prime theme. A government without any interest in transparency and accountability will, naturally, look at ATI as an inconvenience and not as an enabler of good and democratic governance. It as an attitude that not only compromises the core values of democracy but also disenfranchises millions of citizens from participating in the building of their country.
We usually take it for granted that-as the adage goes-“informed citizens make informed choices.” However, if our democracy, hard-won as it is, is about the ability of citizens to exercise choice, then we must ask ourselves what we are doing to make it easier for such choices to not only be made but also become influential in determining governance processes. Without such probing questions, governments tend to divorce themselves from the citizenry and patterns of issuing instructions and commands from the summit (State House) begin to emerge, inevitably leaving many in the dark.
If Malawi enacts an ATI law, it will become only the 18th country to do so in Africa. The state of ATI in Africa is still cause for concern, but various developments in other areas such as mobile telephony and Internet penetration are changing the landscape and imposing an urgency on countries to seriously look into enacting ATI laws or, at the very least, have national policies on ATI.
Other relevant global developments include the growth of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiative, which Malawi is a party to, alongside South Africa and Tanzania in Sadc. OGP is a “multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.” Around the world, over 65 countries have signed up for this initiative, currently chaired by South Africa president, Jacob Zuma.
Much like the ATI law, Malawi is facing some challenges in adopting its first National Action Plan (NAP) while other countries are already on their third NAPs. There are a number of reasons for this, most of them linked to budgetary constraints. Yet, if we fail to honour our obligations in OGP, we risk being excluded from the initiative, something that will reflect negatively on us as a country.
It is imperative, therefore, that Mutharika situates his vision for Malawi against the backdrop of openness, transparency and accountability. The first step of being part of the OGP has already been taken, and it is only right that this positive action is followed by the adoption of a NAP, complete with clear and achievable commitments.
Action currently being taken towards Public Sector Reform ought to be lauded for its immediate and broader meaning in instituting mechanisms for openness, transparency and public accountability. Indeed, this effort requires the support of all Malawians as people who interface with the public service on a daily basis. It should be a no-brainer, therefore, that ATI plays a central role in all these efforts.
Hence, as Parliament debates the ATI Bill, the august House has a particular duty to ensure that this bill encourages and promotes the free-flow of information in Malawi, and that it also empowers citizens to use the law as a springboard to fruitful exercise of their democratic rights. Anything less than this will not capture the hopes, dreams and aspirations of many Malawians as imagined at the dawn of Democracy.
We must not, therefore, lose sight of the fact that at the heart of ATI and OGP initiatives, are people whose lives depend on the choices that this country makes. Hence, if we centre people-ordinary people-in our development strategies, we will soon realise that the mass, weight and strength of their collective will is something that can be used to systematically advance their lives, bearing good fortune for this country.
The opportunity to do so should not be awarded as privilege but as a fundamental right. n
*Levi Kabwato is the regional advocacy officer for the Open Democracy Advice Centre (Odac), based in Cape Town, South Africa.