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Opinion: 'Is it a secret?' by Elizabeth Ohene

By Elizabeth Ohene
Elizabeth Ohene
Elizabeth Ohene
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Every time I have been asked to swear an oath of secrecy, I smile and I have to stop and remind myself this is not funny.

The consequences for breaking the state oath of secrecy are grave.

I smile, though, because when faced with the request, my mind goes back to the world of pre-teens and teenage friends where every time you are telling your friends some new gossip you have heard, you swear them to not repeat the story on pain of death.

We all know that all those childhood secret stories always become public in spite of the oaths of secrecy that would have been sworn.

I find that I do hesitate and smile, not because I cannot keep secrets in my personal life, but mainly because if you earn a living as a journalist, which means finding out things that people would rather keep secret and making them public, you have to wonder what exactly you are swearing to keep secret and why.

I have been thinking of the number of oaths I have sworn during the course of the time I have spent in public life.

I have served and I am serving on a number of public boards and I have been a Minister of State for eight years. I have had to take this solemn vow of secrecy quite a number of times.

I have been grappling with the subject of secrecy and especially how it came about that it was felt that public officials must take oaths of secrecy to cover the work that they do.

In this country, we don’t seem to have any clear-cut rules about how long public documents are kept before they can be released to the public.

It is not even clear exactly who determines which papers are, or should be classified as confidential or secret.

All Cabinet papers, for example, including the most mundane and innocuous letters, are routinely stamped as confidential or secret.

I recollect a particularly ludicrous one that I feel like citing here to make the point except that I don’t know if I might fall foul of the oaths of secrecy that I swore back in 2001.

Are the rules that determine what is classified secret and confidential ever changed as a result of changing habits and technology?

There is a lot of communications taking place on smartphones, are they stamped secret?

Are these secrecy oaths expected to last for the rest of your life, I wonder.

Since we don’t have any formal period after which official papers are released, does it mean I cannot refer to any of those letters that I wrote as a Minister of State, which I don’t think qualify to be labelled secret or confidential in the first place?

I wonder what happens to the verbal conversations; who determines if they are secret or can be made public?


There have been a few books written by people who have served in the highest ranks of government. Dr Obed Asamoah, Prof. Kwamena Ahwoi and Ambassador D.K. Osei come to my mind.

Who determined their accounts of their time in government did not break the oaths of secrecy they took?

If I write my book, is there someone or some institution that would read the manuscript and send it back to me with the portions that offend the secrecy oaths safely redacted?

Where does the continued insistence on an oath of secrecy fit in with the Right to Information, when whatever it is that is being protected by the oath can be ordered to be given out?

I can understand that the process of coming to a decision can be messy and might need to be protected with a measure of confidentiality, but once the decision has been taken, it seems pointless to continue to put a blanket of secrecy around it.

As the Ewe saying goes, usually if you see how the butcher goes about the killing, cleaning and dressing of the animal, you would be put off wanting to eat the meat.

Once dressed up and displayed, it becomes attractive and you would order it for lunch and dinner.

It might well be that we have to look at the political process in much the same way as getting the animal ready for the table; the process of getting it ready is messy and unattractive.

There are vigorous and sometimes violent arguments within governments and political parties in fashioning out policies, and this would not happen if the process is conducted in public.

It is interesting that we all seem to understand and accept the need for medical doctors, priests and maybe lawyers to be bound by rules of confidentiality so we feel comfortable when we go to talk to them.

The end of the Hippocratic Oath that medical doctors take when they are being sworn in as new doctors makes interesting reading, it states: “whatsoever I shall see or hear of the lives of men which is not fitting to be spoken, I will keep inviolably secret”.

All of us don’t want the details of our medical problems that we take to doctors to be made public and most people would vote for medical records and conversations between patients and doctors to be kept confidential.

In much the same way, I am sure many of us would want conversations with priests to be kept secret.

I can testify that as a Minister of State, many of the things you see and hear of the lives of men are not very different from what doctors and priests hear and yet it seems okay for a Minister of State to tell her story, but not a priest or a doctor.


I certainly have a problem with this secrecy oath and not just because of my journalist tendencies.

The practice of letters and papers being marked secret and confidential and taken into the archives and kept secret started when all official documents were typed by secretaries.

This past weekend, I found an old file in the documents clogging up my laptop.

I discovered the old file contained letters I had written as a Minister of State and which are probably now in the archives.

I don’t know if I broke any rules by typing the letters myself and on my own laptop.

(It took almost three years before the government of Ghana gave me a laptop to use when I was a minister)

There is no earth-shattering information in any of the letters I have found, but it is interesting that I do have on my laptop, the electronic versions of paper documents that are probably marked secret and yellowing in the archives.