Transparency and Accountability in Nigeria

After 16 years of military rule, Nigeria’s present constitution was peacefully adopted in 1999. Yet corruption and poor governance have plagued the country ever since and both the 2003 and 2007 Presidential elections were marred by ethnic violence. Despite this, the 2007 election resulted in the first civilian-civilian power transfer in the country’s modern history. Given Nigeria’s history and political circumstances, Nigeria’s transparency and accountability NGOs have their work cut out. Yet during our recent trip to the country, we met a series of organisations who are all seeking to challenge the status quo and promote good governance within the country.

In Abuja, two young activists have founded the grassroots campaign, Follow the Money. Their goal is to highlight the problem of corruption and mismanagement of public finances Tweet by FTMby focusing their campaigns activity on very particular incidents and controversies. Their first big campaign concerned the Bagega community in northern Nigeria. For years, lead poisoning had been causing health problems and deaths in the community and although the government had allocated funds for a clean-up operation, none of that money reached the community.

For 2 years, Follow the Money collected testimonies, photos, videos and medical reports from the community to build up a comprehensive picture of what was going on. They then launched a campaign on Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the mainstream media. Within 48 hours, 850 million Naira (around £3.5 million) had been released by 3 government ministries. It’s a great example of how a focused team of dedicated individuals can impact on the highest levels of government.

Ensuring that the government interacts with the people is difficult for any country. Yet in a country as large and diverse as Nigeria, the problems can be especially acute. In such photocircumstances, a good Freedom of Information (FOI) law can be a powerful tool to get information out of government and into the hands of people who can use it to bring about change. Media Rights Agenda was established in 1993 and is Nigeria’s foremost civil society group working on FOI. By far the biggest aspect of their current work is monitoring the implementation of the FOI law, training journalists in its use and working to ensure it is improved. They have also worked directly with Government employees and those responsible for handling FOI requests to improve their ability and understanding of the law. Educating people on the law (whether citizens, journalists or government officials) is one of their biggest challenges. If citizens are unaware of the law and officials don’t understand it, then there is little hope that the law will become a truly effective mechanism for holding government to account. Fortunately, MRA’s work is helping to change that.

The Community Life Project, meanwhile, is working directly with citizens to ensure fairer elections. They developed Reclaim Naija as a network of groups using a common ICT platform to monitor and report in real-time on the progress of elections across Nigeria. The Ushahidi platform (reclaimnaija.net) accepts traditional calls, as well as SMS. Since the elections, the platform has broadened its scope to include good governance and service delivery, including budget accountability and participatory budgeting. It has received approximately 285,000 messages from 48,000 unique users and CLP believe it to be the most successful every deployment of Ushahidi. The key to this success was the community leader training provided by CLP, which reached 20,000 leaders. They are now preparing for the 2015 elections. They have maintained contact with reporters from 2011 in the hope of keeping them interested for 2015. Ushahidi is a technology that we’re all very familiar with here at Indigo, yet it’s rare indeed to see an example that has enjoyed the stunning success of CLP’s platform.

And last but by no means least are our current grantees at CoCreation Hub – BudgIT, iWatch and Pledge51. All three organisations are working on different aspects of transparency and accountability and it was great to meet with them all personally.

The idea behind Pledge51’s Constitution App is wonderfully simple – provide Nigerians with access to their constitution in a way that suits them. Having clocked up in excess of photo1650,000 downloads, the Nigerian Constitution App can plausibly claim to be one of the most used democratic resources anywhere in the world. It’s a fantastic example of how a small grant can deliver a big impact when it comes to technology. This earlier post has more about the app.

iWatch, meanwhile, is working to collect citizen feedback on government infrastructure projects. But with thousands of such projects ongoing, getting citizen feedback has been an uphill struggle. Despite this, the site contains a wealth of material on what the government has promised, making it very easy for people to see where the government is falling down.

Finally, BudgIT, whose work to make the Nigerian budget more understandable to everyday citizens has made something of an international splash. It’s been fantastic to watch as the organisation has grown in size and strength. After opening up the federal budget, the team are now busy chasing individual states to publish their budgets openly. Tracing financial flows is inherently difficult and what the Federal Government in Abuja says about expenditures will not always tally up with what a state government hundreds of miles away says. But by bringing together federal and state data (and later, hopefully, local data), BudgIT is making corruption and financial mismanagement more difficult and expensive by the day.

Despite the challenges Nigeria is facing, there are some brave champions within civil society who are pushing for change and holding their government to account. It’s great to see this sort of work being done – both at the grasssroots by teams like Follow the Money and up at the state and federal levels by organisations such as BudgIT. Hopefully, their job will become easier as corruption and tax evasion shoot up the international policy agenda. Time will tell…