Can More Openness In Governance Hasten Nigeria’s journey Out of Recession?, By Uche Igwe

It is the anticipation of many, that the OGP process will provide an opportunity for Nigeria to incrementally, but systematically, to transit from ‘transparency’ as a slogan to a brave new world of citizen-empowered change.

Information is an important ammunition against secrecy and opacity. Increased access to information and transparency are proven key tools in the fight against corruption because it leads to greater openness, both for government and indeed all stakeholders. The availability of data, through modern day technological innovation, can potentially push forward the anti-corruption agenda by transforming methods of corruption prevention, through detection and analysis, as well as through engagement with citizens. These may be part of the reasons why the Nigerian government recently signed unto the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in July, 2016. This is said to be in fulfilment of some of the commitments reached by President Buhari with international partners during the anti-corruption summit held in London in May this year.

At a recent media parley in Abuja, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami announced that Nigeria is now the seventieth country to join the initiative globally. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a multi-stakeholder initiative focused on improving government transparency, accountability and responsiveness to citizens, through technology and innovation. OGP was formally launched in 2011 when the eight founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom and United States) endorsed the Open Government Declaration, and announced their country action plans. Nigeria became the 70th country to join the initiative, having many civil society organisations across the world as members, representing about one third of the world population.

According to the Minister, Nigeria’s membership of the OGP initiative fits into existing efforts of this administration to ensure that all conduits through which public resources are pilfered are permanently blocked, and that anyone caught pilfering public funds – no matter how highly placed – will be made to face the full wrath of the law.

He further stated that President Buhari will be signing an Executive Order on promoting transparency and efficiency to improve the business environment, and mandating all government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to adopt openness in contracting procedures, and to publish all contract information. Although Nigeria has been pursuing many initiatives to prevent corruption and reduce waste, not so much has been achieved in substantially reducing either the perception or reality of the incidences of corruption in Africa’s most populous oil producing nation.

For instance, although it has been five years since the passage of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in Nigeria, many government ministries and agencies have been slow in complying with the Act. The FOI Act requires public institutions to proactively disclose certain information on a regular basis, and to respond to requests from individuals and the public within seven days.

The wish of the majority of the population is that policy reforms like the Open Government Partnership that seeks to enthrone ‘transparency, accountability and citizen participation’, begin to yield tangible results sooner rather than later.

Under the same Act, an annual report is expected to be submitted by each organisation to the office of the Attorney General of the Federation at the end of the year. However, according to a report released by civil society organisations, only 44 out of over 800 public institutions submitted their annual FOI reports to the Attorney General in 2016.

In many agencies in Nigeria, files which contain information already in the public domain are marked ‘top secret’. Even the National Assembly, which enacted the law, is yet to comply with it. This ranks Nigeria below international average in compliance.

Part of the reasons why President Buhari won the election last year, against the incumbent President Jonathan, was because he promised to confront the problem of corruption frontally. So far, from the implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) to the Government Integrated Financial Management System, to the enforcement of the Bank Verification Number (BVN), efforts are under way to protect law abiding citizens, expose unscrupulous individuals, and restore abiding confidence in the banking industry and the economy. Government revenue and expenditure have reportedly been streamlined, and the running cost of governance has been reduced by more than half in the last year alone.

Although these efforts, and many more, are ongoing, a majority of the citizens are yet to feel the impact in their day to day lives, especially while they are faced with the current rising costs of living, brought about as a result of the currency devaluation, scarcity of foreign exchange, and therefore increased cost of imports.

High incidences of corruption still exist within the political elite and the ranks of governmental bureaucracy, but the government is not relenting. Recently many judges, who allegedly had corrupt dealings with crooked politicians, were arrested in a nationwide raid and millions of naira of questionable origin found in their custody. Despite the uproar generated as a result of these arrests, the Buhari government has vowed to continue to purge the judiciary of these dubious elements. There is still a lot to do in this regard. However, expectations still remain higher than what the government has been able to deliver. The wish of the majority of the population is that policy reforms like the Open Government Partnership that seeks to enthrone ‘transparency, accountability and citizen participation’, begin to yield tangible results sooner rather than later. And rather than seeing such sentiments as a problem, the government should feel emboldened by the popular support for urgent results.

One can only hope that, in the spirit of openness, it is expected that multiple technology driven platforms like social media and others will be deployed to allow various stakeholders to participate in the country’s new OGP process.

In addition, the need to continuously communicate government plans and programmes with clear timelines, as well as with realistically expected results including anticipated challenges, have become imperative. Engaging citizens effectively must now go beyond talking ‘at’ them or ‘to’ them, to talking ‘with’ them and listening ‘to’ them. This is an important way to inspire hope and counter mounting discontent against the government for raising hopes that cannot realistically be fulfilled within a short period of time.

Coincidentally, such regular engagement with citizens is one of the thematic pillars of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Initiative. One can only hope that as part of the commitments of membership of OGP, the government will mainstream these engagements with the population in every major governmental action.

For instance, pundits are emerging daily with claims and counter-claims of what should be done or not to get the country out of the current recession. While everyone has the right to make their contribution, by conventional wisdom not everyone can be right at the same time. Government may not necessary accept or act on all suggestions, but there should be a mechanism of collating and reviewing them. I would imagine that some of them would be filled with sentiments, partisanship, untested prescriptions, or suffocating orthodoxy. However, among the many public suggestions there may be many that could contain valid points and useful solutions that should be seriously considered.

At the end, the Minister of Justice also informed his audience that the Federal Government will be organising a consultative retreat on October 24th to 26th, 2016 to collect and collate input from stakeholders for the National OGP Action plan within a month. One can only hope that, in the spirit of openness, it is expected that multiple technology driven platforms like social media and others will be deployed to allow various stakeholders to participate in the country’s new OGP process. It is the anticipation of many, that the OGP process will provide an opportunity for Nigeria to incrementally, but systematically, to transit from ‘transparency’ as a slogan to a brave new world of citizen-empowered change.

Uche Igwe, a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics, University of Sussex, can be reached through ucheigwe@gmail.com.

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