How Technology Is Fostering Good Governance In Nigeria

As Nigeria marks its 53rd year since independence from the British on October 1st 1960, techies in the oil-rich West African country have come a long way from queueing at public cafes, to creating a multitude of web and mobile platforms to track activities of the government, and hold leaders accountable. With increased access to mobile phones, Nigeria is witnessing increased participation in governance through social media platforms. Good governance fosters social and economic development. Social media users say with the freedom of information law and advent of technology, Nigerians have the opportunity to access previously inaccessible government data. It also provides an opportunity for increased participation in addressing health challenges, such as the AIDS response. The inability to take action beyond online discussion and debates serve as a threat to social media relevance.

Accessing ‘previously inaccessible’ data

The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, which allows the public to have access to information held by the government, was signed into law in Nigeria in 2011. This has enabled many Nigerians seek out information that was not previously in the public domain.

Mr Japeth Omojuwa, the founder of Omojuwa.com and one of Nigeria’s top social media activists with over 70,000 followers on Twitter, describes the ability of Nigerians to access previously inaccessible government reports as phenomenal.

“Data is everything and it is much more [readily available] today than ever before,” he says, “There are a lot of platforms making data from public and private institutions and these are [generating intense] discussions on social media.”

Web and mobile app innovations

With the advent of social media, web developers and tech savvy youths have developed several web and mobile applications to propagate the information and make their findings public knowledge. “There is a big information gap,” says Oluseun Onigbinde, scrolling through his company profile on his laptop referring to the data available and the awareness and usage of this data among the general public

Onigbinde is the team leader at BudgIT [YourBudgit.com] an online platform that acts as intermediary between the government leaders and the governed in Nigeria.

He says BudgIT was launched in 2011, with support from a founding partner and Co-creation Hub, a technology-focused workspace located in Lagos. The goal was to simplify the Nigerian budget so that the ordinary man on the street can understand.

“Budget should be of common knowledge,” he says. While the leaders prepare budget on how to spend the public resources, the people at the grassroots should understand what the money is being spent on, Onigbinde says.

The budget analysis website, YourBudgit.com, targets the urban youth, civil society organizations and government institutions.

Their website help individuals and organizations track government approved projects in their states to reduce corruption and identify cases of abandoned projects.

BudgIT present the national budget in form of infrographics, interactive application or quick data access in order to make data analysis self-revealing and enable users ask clear questions about government spending.

“We also publish a bi-annual policy document on improving the budget processes, institutions and transparency,” Onigbinde says, “our approach is to bring forth human angle stories by converting stack information to moving narrative that drives a sense of ownership in the user.”

Prior to starting up YourBudgit.com, Onigbinde says he worked at one of the Banks in Nigeria. “I was in the public finance team,” he says. They analyzed the annual budget for the bank. The experience at the bank inspired him in his activism.

While working at the bank he experienced first-hand the gaps in the budget analysis sector and wondered how it be better simplified. He envisioned applying his knowledge to make the Nigerian budget more transparent, accessible and understandable for Nigerians.

During the January 2012 Fuel subsidy protest in Nigeria, YourBudgit.com played an instrumental role in ensuring a re-adjustment in the Nigerian budget. The team created a budget cut application during the Occupy Nigeria Movement, a protest instigated by an increment in price of fuel. The application helped start an engagement on national budget among users.

“We did a budget cut application that made them readjust the Nigerian budget and it was mind blowing,” Onigbinde says. The application had over 4,000 daily visits by users.

Some of the information released by BudgIT has gone viral; the most prominent example was an analysis of the Nigerian budget, which showed the President was allocated one billion naira for food allowance. Young Nigerians shared the information on their different social network accounts. With over 9,500 followers on Twitter, BudgIT has recorded over 4million web hits and has processed over 4,000 data requests. For them, the social media is an active platform for engaging users and initiating action. But Onigbinde does not regard it as a platform that should primarily be used to oppose the government. “It is not like it is a war out there,” he says. Thus, the weaknesses of the Nigeria’s legislative office provided BudgIT co-founders an opportunity to serve as consultants to help improve the system.

Through a funding provided by Department for International Development (DFID), the team at BudgIT recently launched an institution-focused project at the National Assembly budget and research office. They built mapping software, which arranged the Nigerian capital projects according to their locations.

According to the information on their website, the Nigerian budget now re-arranged by BudgIT according to locations has been accessed by over 150 civil society organisations. Onigbide says the project resonates with their goal to provide institutional support to ensure national budget in Nigeria is understandable.

Like YourBudgit.com, other social media tools that have come into limelight include antigraft.org, a web repository that documents corruption practices in Nigeria. The website was launched in June this year by WANGONET, a coalition of NGOs in Nigeria, with funding from Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).

‘Seun Akinfolarin, one of the creators of antigraft.org says the website aggregates information around corruption in governance and initiate action. “It allows people take action on corruption case,” he says, “So you don’t find someone convicted for crime 10 years ago coming out to run for office ten years after because people have forgotten.”

In addition to the existing portals is NigeriaElections.org, another example of website created to foster good governance in Nigeria. The website provides information about elections in Nigeria. These include election malpractice, profile of candidates, polling stations and real time reports on election incidences.

Social media as an enabler

According to the data published on Internet users, population and Facebook statistics for Africa 2012 by internetworldstats.com, while the world currently has a 37.7 percent Internet penetration, Africa has a 15.6 percent with an estimated 167million Internet users on the continent.

Nigeria, with a population of about 170 million and Gross National Income per capital of US 1,200 (WorldBank 2011) has an estimated 48 million Internet users, with 28.4 percent Internet penetration. As at December 2012, over 6.6 million Nigerians were registered Facebook users.

The emergence of social media has contributed immensely to expand the frontiers of good governance. From open government data as noted by Omojuwa, and citizen reporting on government abuses, it has also provided a medium to connect citizens with one another and empower them to hold government accountable which some also call Citizen reporting, says Adeola Austin Oyinlade, a lawyer and President of the Constitutional Rights Awareness and Liberty Initiative.

“Social media essentially is people in the end,” says Akinfolarin, “From my own personal experience, by connecting people to a cause and getting them to work for that cause, I’ve been able to access even greater amount of information.”

Meanwhile, Onigbinde says social media has a crucial role to play in ensuring Nigerian leaders are held accountable. Akinforlarin says social media takes users a step further in interrogating the system. “That has been the power of social media.”

Highlighting the contributions of social media use in Nigeria, Oyinlade says it has made governance more efficient by reducing transaction costs. For example, mobile phones and Internet make it less expensive to provide government data, monitor elections, inform citizens about government activities or services. “Apart from efficiency, technology has transformed workings of government and how citizens interact,” he says.

Social media has also helped activists organize. And Governments have used its emergence to monitor protest and public opinion on its policies. Citizens now quickly report crime to the law enforcement agencies.

But amidst the optimism, Onigbinde and Akinfolarin point out some of the downsides of social media activism.

“One challenge I still have is the offline network,” Onigbinde says. He advocates for Nigerians active on social media not to limit their activism to dazzling over topics without a follow-up away from the keyboards.

“It looks like we are just talking,” Onigbinde says, “I think we need an offline structure.” He says this will ensure issues raised online are followed through offline.

Recently, the team at BudgIT took their online activities to the grassroots by distributing hard copies simplified budget documents they usually upload on their website for those at the grassroots to have access instead of being disconnected from the discussion.

“We need to strike a balance,” says Onigbinde. Akinfolarin agrees, “One thing we have to do is to be deliberate about what we want,” Akinfolarin says, “We are not deliberate enough, everything just happens more or less by chance.”

Akinfolarin advocates for the need for Non-Governmental organizations (NGOs) and other activists to create simple goals and get young people to collaborate in achieving these goals.

He says, “once people have confidence on social media, they’ll trust it as their source of information and tool for organization.”

The popularity of some of these websites has little impact among Nigerians. Akinfolarin says that although NigeriaElections.org has recorded about 80,000 daily visits, people do not use them as much as expected. “The impact is greater but the manifestation of that impact is not just known yet,” he says.

Increased Internet penetration

Nigeria’s Internet sector has been hindered by poor infrastructure over the past years, but as new technologies that deliver wireless broadband access continue to flood the country, Nigerians are able to improve on their connectivity and Internet access.

According to a report published by the punch newspaper, about 32 million Nigerians are accessing the Internet through telecommunication networks, while other users depend on other Internet Service Providers.

“IT gained more traction in the last five to seven years. The usage is small but usefulness is much,” Akinfolarin says, “Technology will revolutionize governance in the end.”

Akinfolarin points out the need for people to be patient while awaiting the outcome of their deliberate use of social media. “Young people have to be introduced early enough, it has to be part of their civic responsibility in a way,” he says, as this will ensure an accurate use of the medium.

As Tech continuous to take deeper root in the Nigerian society, social media activists unanimously agree on its ability to shape good governance through increased transparency and access to information.

“With technology we can create an open governance process that brings everything to the fore,” says Omojuwa. The use of technology exposes lapses in the government operations.

He points out how during Mr. Nuhu Ribadu’s era, the Economic Financial Crime Commission could track every major flow of money within Nigeria and outflows from Nigeria.

“This went a long way in tracking illicit money and all forms of corrupt activities,” Omojuwa says, “This process can translate to every form of governance. We can use technology to deliver the dividends of good governance and technology can level the social space and bridge the gap between the governors and the governed.”

Social media and AIDS response

Social media has also played an instrumental role in opening up conversations about different health issues, especially the AIDS response.

“Opportunity abound for technology in AIDS response,” says Paul Adepoju, Managing Editor at HealthNewsNG.com. Adepoju says social media has contributed to increased awareness, which is an important prevention measure on the health challenge.

“Many people tweet and share on social media,” he says. “But are those actually getting to the right people?” To ensure news updates reach the right audience and curb the transitory nature of information flow, Adepoju launched the health-focused news website healthnewsNG.com. “We saw that tweets and Facebook posts are easily forgotten once they are off the timeline,” he says.

According to Adepoju, social media can also be used as a tool of mobilization for social change. “A good example was the CrowdOutAIDS initiative,” he says. In 2011, the UNAIDS engaged over 5,000 young people across the world in crowdsourcing a new strategy document that will ensure youths are better engaged in the AIDS response. The recommendations made by the participants are currently being implemented into the UNAIDS programmes, and adapted by other local organizations. CrowdOutAIDS was the first ever crowdsourced document in UN history and an online process facilitated the process.

However, to ensure young people at the grassroots were carried along, youth volunteers replicated the online process in their various communities. With a guide provided by UNAIDS, the youth volunteers engaged their peers who have no Internet access in the same discussions. The report of their offline forum was uploaded online, in form of blog posts, for other participants to view.

“We’ve been able to cover a wide range of distance with just a simple click to disseminate powerful information and strategies on how young people could access HIV/STI prevention tools, treatment, care and support,” says Gabriel Adeyemo, one of the CrowdOutAIDS participant and mobilizers in Nigeria.

Despite the different recorded success in the use of social media to increase AIDS response, some users say a lot of opportunities are still being overlooked.

“There are a wider range of opportunities that can be tapped into in the AIDS response that are not being explored,” says Kikelomo Taiwo, a youth volunteer at HIV/AIDS Anti-stigma Bill Campaign project Education as a Vaccine (EVA), a local NGO based in Abuja Nigeria.

Taiwo says disseminating information through the use of mobile technology should be explored more. “Young people who are the most vulnerable and affected population need to be reached with information that is timely, accurate and non-judgemental,” she says.

To further encourage active youth participation in AIDS response, Taiwo advocates for an increased youth engagement in monitoring the effective implementation of policies and programs. “This can be done by asking young people to share their experiences concerning HIV health services they received or issues they are dealing with,” she says.

Adepoju is optimistic that using social media to increase participation in the AIDS response is a step in the right direction.

“As far as I’m concern, with my wealth of experience in health journalism, technology coverage and HIV care in Africa, we may not cure AIDS in the next 10 years,” says Adepoju, “But we can stop the spread of the virus within five years if we properly channel technology tools.”

Increased participation in governance through social media

Although some public officials in Nigeria have expressed displeasure over the growing use of different social network sites as platforms for debating government policies, Nigerian activists consider it an enabler for fostering good governance.

Early this year, an online newspaper, Premium Times, reported that the federal government awarded a $40 million Internet surveillance contract to Elbit Systems an Israeli company, to monitor computer, Internet communication by Nigerians. This raised a lot of debate around the freedom of expression.

“I don’t think there is a need for social media regulation,” says Oyinlade.

The Lawyer emphasizes right to use social media can be traced to the universal right freedom of expression or Freedom of the Press on other jurisdiction.

“The freedom of expression is provided for under international treaties, charters, covenants such Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and Regional instruments like African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights” he says. “These have been signed, ratified and transformed into national law by many member states of the United Nations, African Union among other international bodies.”

In Nigeria, Freedom of Expression is enshrined under section 39 of the 1999 Constitution as amended. Print, online and electronic media operations derive their existence from the fundamental right called freedom of expression. Freedom of Expression, which includes right to speak, tweet, write and publish, does not permit a person to defame another.

“I don’t see an essence of enacting a social media specific law to regulate what people express on social media. Freedom of expression has a wider scope, which covers the social media activities,” Oyinlade says, “Calls for its regulation or social media specific law is an attempt to use law as an instrument of fraud and by denying people on this inalienable right.”

In an article, “Social Media may yet change governance in Africa,” the former Vice President of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, acknowledge this new platform as the space where young Nigerians gather “to share their thoughts, often venting their frustrations with the inefficiencies of the country.”

He recognized social media “as a powerful organizing tool in protecting our democracy moving forward. It also allows me an opportunity to listen to diverse uncensored views of the people.”

The former Vice President of Nigeria advocates for government officials to see social media as an opportunity to listen to their constituency. He described the platform as “gold mine of data and reference for performance.”

The advent of the use of social media in Nigeria to debate issues around government policies has increased participation.

“We might not have a mass protest that sparked off from Facebook but we must understand that the Arab spring did not come from Twitter, it was just an enabler,” says Akinfolarin, “so when there is a need for that movement, we’ll be able to use this Social Media platform to organize.”

Jennifer Ehidiamen is a tech-savvy journalist based in Lagos. She reports on global health and development issues in Africa for Voice of America (VOA News). Jennifer also serves as a photojournalist and communications consultant. A 2013 Innovative Young Journalist Award recipient, 2013 New Media fellow for International Reporting Project, 2010 LEAP Africa award recipient and a 2009 Atlas Service Corps Fellow, Jennifer recently founded the Rural Reports project [http://www.ruralreporters.com], a news portal dedicated to grassroots citizen-reporting. She serves as an Advisory Council member for Washington DC-based One World Youth Project (OWYP). She has published three books: "In Days to Come" (2004), "Preserve my Saltiness" (2011) and "Half A Loaf And A Bakery" (2013). Jennifer graduated from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism with a degree in Mass Communication. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @Disgeneration