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How NBS’ data leak puts local media at disadvantage

Apart from the timely provision of macroeconomic data upon which the macroeconomic stance of a nation is deciphered, and major economic decisions are made, ensuring equal access to sovereign information is another main task of a central information agency like the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

Unfortunately, this time, the NBS has not lived up to its constitutional responsibilities, as it currently risks reputational damage owing to its recent activities.

Before the appointment of the new Statistician-General of the Bureau by President Muhammadu Buhari, the NBS, under the leadership of its former head, Yemi Kale, had been delivering exceptional data services to the nation.

Before the current administration banned Twitter, Kale would make announcements on data release dates and times via his Twitter page. This was important to give everyone an equal opportunity to access information about the economy.

However, with the appointment of a new boss, things have gone quite awry at the bureau, and many Nigerians are not happy about the recent development.

President Buhari, in August 2021, appointed Simon Harry as the new Statistician-General of the NBS following the expiration of Yemi Kale’s tenure. Shortly after this takeover, the bureau was accused of back-channeling information to foreign outlets way ahead of an official announcement.

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For instance, on Monday, September 6, 2021, some major news outlets have been reported to have released Nigeria’s 2021 Q2 foreign trade report. The release is figured to have been made over the weekend. Only later that same Monday, the NBS released the same information that had already made media rounds ahead of the bureau.

Many staggered at this puzzling event and only hoped it was an honest mishap. Later in the same month, another unexpected leak was reported.

This time, August 2021 inflation data was released by a foreign media outlet. The release date, according to media sources, was on Wednesday, September 15, 2021. The consumer price index (CPI) data was still not available on the NBS website by the afternoon of the same day.

According to the foreign media report, whose information spread ahead of the official source, August 2021 inflation rate stood at 17.01 percent. This shows that inflation in the country has declined by 0.37 percentage points from 17.38 percent in the previous month.

The asymmetric access to sensitive data held by an entrusted national entity by foreign concerns due to privileged reach begs several questions.

On the one hand, since the leakage occurred just a few weeks after the new boss commenced his tenure, could this be a question about the boss’s capacity to sustain the reputation built by his predecessor? Or, could this be a subtle message or signal by the NBS team about accepting their new head?

On the other hand, the event provokes concerns about the new boss’ capacity to deliver on the mandate given to him by the President. Is Dr. Harry ready for the new role for which he is entrusted?

The untimely release of data to vested quarters could cause the nation more than just a leakage.

Firstly, it will cost the NBS a huge reputational loss as people will generally doubt their competence in data management. Furthermore, this may also affect public trust in any published macroeconomic data coming from the outfit.

Secondly, local media will lose the competition against well-established foreign media if they continue to access critical public data ahead of home-based outlets. Indeed, foreign access to data in advance will crowd out local advantage, which will be at a huge national cost.

It is inappropriate to serve foreign media interest with exclusive information on the economic and political affairs of the nation ahead of local outlets. This attitude is ultimately bad for local businesses and investment firms who rely on these data to make business decisions.

Thirdly, advancing the spread of information through the backdoor to special interests will further broaden information asymmetry. Access by a particular set of individuals to some specific information naturally confers a commercial advantage in decision making over others who get the same information later. This is because those with sooner information can quickly take action based on the data set before them. At the same time, others may find it too late to take requisite action when the information finally reaches them.

Asymmetric information caused by back-channelling data is an undesirable outcome against the law of competition of sovereign data. The NBS system has worked so well for eight years under the former Statistician-General, and it will be a bad omen for the new head if a third leak is reported.

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