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The young and bold face of Nigeria’s democratic consciousness

A new generation of Nigerian civil society is using technology and social media to organise and demand good governance. They are shaking off decades of fear and fatalism and making their voices heard, writes Anne Muriungi.

Yemi Adamolekun, executive director of Enough is Enough, a coalition of individuals and youth-led organisations committed to instituting a culture of good governance and public accountability in Nigeria, has often argued that the problem with governance in Nigeria is threefold. The first aspect is the shadow cast by its history of military rule, a society in which you could not express contrary opinions. Secondly, it is a culture steeped in respect or subservience to elders. The third factor is religion. These factors lead many to believe that the solution to the country’s problems is encapsulated in the popular pidgin expression ‘God dey’ – God will solve all our problems.

Not any more – at least not in certain quarters. The last decade has ushered in a section of young, emboldened Nigerians who are clamouring for change, demanding that their leaders be accountable.

Many people believe the solution to the country’s problems is encapsulated in the popular pidgin expression ‘God dey’ – God will solve all our problems.

It all began five years ago with the hashtag #OccupyNigeria, when a group of young professionals were angry enough to storm the nation’s capital, demanding answers. Triggered by the removal of a fuel-subsidy, one of the country’s perennial problem areas, the movement would turn out to be Nigeria’s Arab Spring and spur civil society activism to new levels.

Data made easy

The momentum of #OccupyNigeria made one group of individuals realise that citizens were indeed interested in how their government spent money, even though the information was hidden in complex financial language. Now, five years later, Oluseun Onigbinde and his partner are celebrating the journey of BudgIT, a civil organisation that breaks down the country’s budget into simple data that the average citizen will understand.

#OccupyNigeria movement started five years ago. Photo: Flickr/Michael Fleshman
#OccupyNigeria movement started five years ago. Photo: Flickr/Michael Fleshman

Using infographics and simplified charts, difficult concepts, such as fiscal policy and capital expenditure, are broken down in a manner that the layman will find accessible and understandable. This data is then posted on social media spaces such as Twitter and Facebook, illustrating how government is allocating funds.

BudgIT also keeps track of project spending within the various states, checking whether funds allocated actually do what they were required to do. In 2015, the organisation was one of the first to bring to light the issue of the hefty wardrobe allowances that are allocated to members of the Senate. These were clearly not in the spirit of austerity – the ticket that Muhammadu Buhari’s presidential campaign used to get into power.

BudgIT has not only been recognised by citizens but the Senate itself, which previously relied on simplified documents to use during debates in the Chamber.

Members of the "Bring Back Our Girls" movement, holding a banner showing photographs of some of the missing, march to press for the release of the schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 from their school in Chibok by Islamist group Boko Haram, during a rally in Abuja on January 14, 2016. Photo: ANP/AFP Stringer
Members of the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement, holding a banner showing photographs of some of the missing, march to press for the release of the schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 from their school in Chibok by Islamist group Boko Haram, during a rally in Abuja on January 14, 2016. Photo: ANP/AFP Stringer

At a recent panel discussion to highlight the work that BudgIT is doing sat two divides of civil society: one side was young, emboldened and unafraid; the other mature yet vocal about democracy, with the wisdom of the years behind it.  On the side of experience was Obiageli Ozekwesili, Nigeria’s most prominent face behind the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. She delivered a keynote address that took stock of the country’s history of democracy against the monopoly of military government.

Summing up the importance of the work that is being done by BudgIT, she noted, “If the public purse is understood, leaders are held accountable and citizens can make decisions relying on that data.” A transparent public purse means that those in charge will not have the audacity to try and dip their fingers into it at any time.

Tunji Lardner, the executive director of the West Africa NGO Network, praised the work being done by BudgIT and reminded them of the gift of democracy and social media today that allowed them to get on with their work.

A new generation of voices keeping government on its toes

People like Oluseun Onigbinde, Yemi Adamolekun, Chude Jideonwo, Gbenga Sesan, Femi Longe, Tolu Ogunlesi or Japheth Omojuwa make up Nigeria’s new consciousness. They are making their voices heard and people are listening.

Some of Nigeria’s greatest influencers are under 40 years of age and they are keeping government on its toes, while empowering fellow citizens to stand up and do something. This new consciousness relies heavily on technology for messaging or building platforms. BudgIT was brought to the fore at a hackathon organised by Co-Creation Hub, a business incubator based in Yaba, Nigeria’s equivalent to Silicon Valley. Co-Creation Hub gives birth to ideas and fuses them with technology to solve problems.

This could take the form of creating ICT-related platforms that require the government to create access to information. In this regard, the social entrepreneur Gbenga Sesan’s Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, a social enterprise that offers ICT opportunities to the youth, comes to mind. Ademolakun’s EiE’s platforms monitor election-related issues. Jideonwo’s Red Media-affiliated companies, like YNaija, which is billed as the ‘Internet newspaper for young Nigerians’, uses media to harness ideas and shape thinking.

This new consciousness relies heavily on technology for messaging or building platforms.

Chude Jideonwo rightly pointed out that the movements of the future will be started through the media. “When citizens use media to demand and make changes in society, then social engineering will be the beginning of real change,” he noted.

Nigeria’s current government has to recognise these platforms, especially given that its success at the polls was partly due to a large social media campaign powered by some of these activists. They will now keep reminding President Buhari that ‘we voted for you, so we expect this and that from you’.

Moreover, President Buhari’s government has taken note of many of these names and brought them into dialogue to help government gain acceptance and get things right. Government is acknowledging that the new generation knows the terrain well. Social media is alive with conversations between government and fellow citizens, which sometimes becomes a free-for-all.

What is clear is that the citizens of today are more vocal and aware of their rights online. Even if they cannot confront their government face to face, this virtual interaction is allowing for dialogue that could never have happened before.

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