Parliament and Open Government in Nigeria

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PEOPLE2PEOPLE

By Oke Epia, Telephone (sms only): 07059850016 Email: o.epia@orderpaper.ng.

Twitter: @resourceme

Throughout this week the global community has been celebrating the tenets of collaboration, cooperation and co-creation between government, civil society, the private sector and other non-state actors. This template of civic engagement in the governance process is under the auspices of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the emerging ‘new normal’ in the execution of the social contract between leaders and the led.

The OGP was started in 2011 as “an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens,” according to the official website of the global movement. From a foundation cluster of 8 countries, the partnership has been subscribed to by up to 70 sovereign states while some 15 sub-national governments (including Kaduna State) have become participants as well. Nigeria joined the body in 2016 and has since developed and commenced implementation of a National Action Plan (NAP), which contains 14 concrete commitments (with clearly defined milestones and timelines) the country set out to achieve around the four key themes of fiscal transparency, anti-corruption, access to information and citizen engagement. It is important to note that tools of engagement such as open data and technology are a common thread straddling the four themes. The government, civil society and even the private sector are increasingly embracing these tools in service delivery and measurement of social accountability. I will later in this piece share some highlights of how civil society organizations like OrderPaper, Nigeria’s foremost people-parliament interface platform, are applying these tools to engage the legislature in Nigeria.

But it is necessary to make the point first of all, that in this fancy framework of results-based multi-stakeholder engagements, the role of the parliament as the custodian and promoter of the collective interests of all citizens in a democracy cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately the National Assembly of Nigeria, as the highest legislative body of the country, is conspicuously missing from this burgeoning interface that has been showcased and celebrated all week long in Abuja, the nation’s capital. Whether by deliberate design or unwitting nonchalance the non-integration of the parliament into the OGP infrastructure in Nigeria poses daunting challenges that cannot only impede the achievements of the (2017-2019) National Action Plan but also undermine some of the gains made since the implementation of the plan commenced in 2017.

Nigeria’s National Action Plan is made up of 14 commitments cut across the four thematic areas of engagement listed earlier. Of particular interest in this discourse are the following commitments: development of a permanent dialogue mechanism on transparency, accountability and good governance between citizens and government to facilitate a culture of openness; a liaison of government-civil society that should jointly review existing legislation on transparency and accountability issues and make recommendations to the National Assembly; and finally, adopt a technology-based citizens feedback on projects and programmes across transparency.

The central place of the legislature in realizing these milestones cannot be gainsaid. They all speak directly or indirectly to the roles, duties and functions of the parliament in a democracy. Interestingly, these commitments also connote an assumption that the parliament is open and accessible as the institution that represents and promotes the aspirations and interests of citizens. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s National Assembly as currently constituted and operated is at variance with this ideal. Much of its processes, procedures, operations and outcomes remain quite esoteric and sometimes deliberately made opaque to the public. Although citizens have continued to step up the demand for an open National Assembly (#OpenNass) especially in the financial transactions of parliament, the institution has been quite hesitant if not resistant to such public scrutiny. Some credit must however be given to the current assembly which has opened up on the budgetary process and made measured disclosure on the budget of the federal legislature. But there is still a long way to go. The question on the actual earnings and allowances of senators and members of the House of Representatives has remained enmeshed in a raging controversy as majority of citizens believe the country is heavily shortchanged.

The concern therefore is that a national assembly that is itself averse to exhaustive citizen inquisition can hardly be trusted to be a genuine partner in achieving the NAP commitments. The fact that the parliament has been grossly underrepresented if not entirely unrepresented in the week-long OGP events in Nigeria speaks to the urgent need to get the National Assembly into the conversation and extract productive commitments from the people’s representatives on OGP. It would be easier for instance, for the National Assembly to key into and fast-track reviews of legislations on the thematic areas of the NAP. It is very important therefore to deliberately integrate the parliament into the next NAP post-2019 to make for faster and smoother implementation especially as it relates to legislations.

Now to the point about using technology and open data to engage with the Parliament, civic groups in Nigeria have recorded some gains as they continue the push for a more open National Assembly. As hinted earlier, OrderPaper has been actively involved in reporting and tracking activities in the National Assembly in a bid to simplify the workings and activities of parliament. OrderPaper has also developed ConsTrack, a constituency projects tracking mobile application to engender openness, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability in a scheme that has for long been mired in the controversy of corruption. By providing verified, validated and updated data (including texts and images) on the cost, location, level of funding and implementation of constituency projects, the ConsTrack App is set to disrupt the existing regime of opacity and corruption surrounding the scheme. The App, which is due for launch soon, will necessarily engender citizen engagement around parliamentary representation which will invariably lead to inclusiveness in the choice and implementation of constituency projects in Nigeria. With the kind of interventions OrderPaper and organizations like BudgIT and Enough is Enough (EIE) are making in the civic space, the OGP in Nigeria is fast becoming a beacon of multi-stakeholder governance hub other nations can look up to. But it is worth restating that the Parliament must be brought into the picture without any further delay.

Pix: National Assembly.jpg