SINCE the coming on stream of Nigeria’s Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in 2011, worries abound regarding how those who should have been judiciously using the legislation as a weapon to combat the scourge of bad governance, have tended to shy away from that responsibility. Many key figures in Nigeria’s civil society are agitated that this crucial legislation, which the media and CSOs fought so gallantly to bring to reality, is now languishing in the throes of disuse.
Those who know say the situation with the lack of usage of the legislation is so bad that many agencies of government, which had taken steps to set up structures to respond to freedom of information requests are having to roll back those efforts because very few FOI requests are being made, making the investments in mechanisms to respond to FOI requests seem a waste of time and efforts.
To change this paradigm in relation to putting a close eye on Nigeria’s electoral process, two civil society organisations, the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) and Media Rights Agenda, a Lagos based media NGO are teaming up to use the FOI to thoroughly interrogate Nigeria’s preparations for the 2015 general elections.
The TMG is a coalition of over 400 civil society organisations committed to the deepening of democratic values through election observation, civic education, and advocacy. Incidentally, the 2015 elections are the first that would be held under an FOI regime. Beyond this however, questions are being raised about what is perceived to be the modus operandi of the Nigerian civil society in its exertions on elections has over the years. It has been stressed that in the last 15 years since the advent of Nigeria’s democratic dispensation in 1999, CSOs have tended to wait for flawed elections to happen, before promptly issuing statements and reports to describe how fraudulent and despicable the elections were.
Using the FOI as a veritable instrument this time however, TMG and MRA are exploring the proactive option of asking fundamental questions about the preparations for the elections, analyzing the answers and then drawing insightful conclusions. The inferences and extrapolation from the answers derived from these FOI requests will help beam the spotlight on the preparation of all the stakeholders including the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the security agencies, the National Orientation Agency (NOA) and even the political parties, who are subject to and must respond to FOI requests by virtue of the fact that they get public funds.
The two organisations, alongside the Democratic Governance Development of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which is in charge of administering the joint donor basket from which the programme would be funded, brainstormed on how to take this novel idea forward.
Specifically, the Chairman of TMG, Comrade Zikirullahi M. Ibrahim in his remarks noted that the time had come for Nigeria’s civil society to up the ante in the quest to deepen the democratic process by working to ensure that impunity and all other forms of subterfuge by the political class does not derail the nation’s hard won democracy.
He said: “Since the advent of Nigeria’s democratic dispensation in 1999, the problem of flawed elections has reached an unprecedented level, especially with the despicable 2007 elections, which were adjudged by both local and international observers as the most fraudulent and chaotic polls ever conducted in the history of our country. But the fundamental question that arises is: where was the civil society in the build up to these flawed elections? If we may hazard an answer, the civil society movement seemed to be much more interested in waiting to condemn the outcome of the elections. Our focus has always been on Election Day processes and outcomes, without a commensurate attention on critical processes that constitute the systemic build up to the elections.”
Comrade Zik expressed the view that elections fail, not only because of the actions or inactions on E-Day itself, but also because of things that were left unattended to years, weeks and months before E-Day. He observed that civil society has developed the tendency in the last 15 years of democracy of waiting for the damage to be done to the electoral process before raising its voice.
“We merely wait for flawed elections to come and go, and then we issue reports to describe how terrible the elections were. This is the job of an undertaker, who simply appears to bury the dead, and is not concerned about how to save a dying man from the cold fingers of death. I believe that this paradigm, which has underscored our engagements for over one decade has to be reviewed. The FOI and Elections project being implemented through a partnership between the Transition Monitoring Group and Media Rights Agenda offers us another road to travel. Using the instrumentality of the Freedom of Information Legislation, which has been in our hands since 2011, we will track the preparations of INEC and other important stakeholders for the 2015 general elections. This project, we believe would bring back the idea of a proactive civil society that does not wait for the damage to be done before acting.
He added: “The 2015 polls within the context of our democracy, and our national cohesion are too crucial to be allowed to fail. We will therefore not leave the fortunes of the elections in the hands of INEC and the other concerned stakeholders alone. Our gathering here today amounts to taking our destinies in our hands; I therefore call for passion, forthrightness and dedication as we begin the deliberations that will produce those crucial questions that the elections management body, and other related stakeholders must answer about their preparations for 2015.
Giving a broad overview of the idea, MRA director, Edetaen Ojo pointed out that “under this Freedom of Information and Elections Programme, MRA would work with TMG to use the Freedom of Information Act to assess INEC’s preparedness for the Elections as well as the state of preparedness of other government agencies that have any sort of role to play in the elections.
“Basically, the idea is that as the 2015 general elections draw nearer, public institutions led by INEC, are reported to be putting plans and structures in place to ensure the smooth conduct of the elections and to ensure that they are free, fair and credible. In order to ensure that INEC and other public institutions involved with the elections live up to their responsibilities and remain accountable for their action, it is of critical importance that civil society organizations, particularly those that are members of the TMG, are able to apply the principles of the FOI Act to ensure transparency and accountability in the process as well as ensure the adequacy and effectiveness of the arrangements put in place.”
The project description notes that the monitoring exercise would be carried out in all the states of the federation, with the intention of leveraging on TMG’s extensive network of over 400 civil society organisations across the nation. These member organisations of the coalition would work to determine, through request for information from all INEC offices in the 36 states and the headquarters in Abuja, the plans and structures that INEC has put in place to ensure a smooth, free and fair election.
The project has already gotten underway with a three day planning and drafting meeting, which held at the Top Rank Galaxy Hotel in Abuja to plan the project and draft thousands of the questions that would be taken to INEC and other stakeholders in the electoral process for answers. Also zonal workshops to build the capacity of civil society actors on how to use the FOI are currently underway. So what next, assuming the answers to the FOI requests are provided by the institutions to which they were addressed? The information coming from the monitoring exercise will then be collated, analyzed and a report of findings published periodically and widely disseminated electronically on a monthly basis to the Nigerian public.
Also, six zonal workshops are in the offing as part of the plan to build the capacities of TMG members from the six geo-political zones. Each workshop will be an intensive three-day training on understanding and using the FOI Act. The first and second days will be dedicated to training participating organisations on understanding the law while the third day will be used for training on using the FOI to make requests and for fine-tuning the requests for information and records that have been earlier drafted.
MRA, in collaboration with TMG, will issue an electronic monthly publication based on the report and analysis received from the 36 states and federal capital territory on government’s actions towards the elections and post elections. The report will be disseminated monthly over a period of about eight months via an electronic newsletter, which MRA will work with the TMG to design and produce.
“Finally, MRA will also collaborate with TMG to develop, print and widely disseminate a manual on the Freedom of Information Act and Elections, which will serve as a guide for the TMG members and possibly other civil society organizations, using the FOI Act to make requests,” the MRA helmsman said.
Apart from the MRA project, TMG is also tapping into the 2015 momentum to educate voters in various communities across the country.
The push to empower voters stems from the thinking that the electoral cycle should not just be about the ambitions and aspirations of politicians. The ideal in a democracy is that the main debates would revolve around the wishes and aspirations of the ordinary people who wield the power to vote. But without the appropriate tools and instruments to empower the people, the latent power ordinary voters have to make informed choices from the numerous menus offered by the electoral process would be severely watered down.
So powerful is the goal of understanding the place occupied by the ordinary people that scholars and practitioners talk often about the concept of “people power.” It is therefore in a bid to ensure that the people use the power of their votes to bring about positive change, which would in turn rub off on their socio-economic fortunes, that the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation recently engaged citizens in the South East States of Abia and Imo through a series of town hall meetings. The project titled; Mobilizing, Organizing And Educating Citizens For Participation And Observation Of The Pre-Election Processes In Abia And Imo States, saw town hall meetings holding in local governments like Umuahia North, Umuahia South, Ikwuano, Isiala Ngwa North, Arochukwu, Ohafia, Umunneochi, and Bende, all in Abia State. Similarly in Imo State, the town hall dialogues held across local government areas. The town hall deliberations across the two states afforded the ordinary folks the opportunity to get their voices heard in the democratic process. The events also served the purpose of setting an agenda in terms of what the ordinary people expect from those aspiring to govern them.
As such, a number of the participants talked about the problems in their communities and how they felt they could use their collective power to compel the machinery of governance to find lasting solutions to these problems.
In specific terms, the focus of the town hall deliberations included the ongoing Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), as well as other aspects focusing on the 2015 elections, with a clear insight into putting in place structures that would ensure that citizens have their voices heard by wisely making use of their votes. Earlier on, TMG trained CRV observers to monitor the process of how eligible citizens were taking the opportunity of the CRV to get their names and details on the voter register. The town hall provided an opportunity for residents to engage in a robust dialogue with members of the civil society. In this regard, participants were taken through an interactive discussion of what it meant to have a town hall meeting as well as why the town hall was an important part of the conversation about democracy and good governance. In Abia State for example, the town hall meetings engaged more than 119 participants in an open interactions, which were attended by traditional rulers, professionals, youths and women groups in Olokoro – Umuahia South, Ohokobe – Umuahia north and Iwuano LGA’s. The forum stimulated discussion on how to ensure massive citizens participation in the electoral processes and to ensure violence-free elections.
Mr. Joseph Olayanju of the TMG Secretariat, while acknowledging the support of the MacArthur foundation in funding the initiative to reach out to the people at the grassroots stressed that the event was put together to identify the political and structural issues militating against democracy and popular participation at the grassroots. He said the engagements would help shore up and improve the political and democratic foundations of the country, while encouraging increased citizens participation in the democratic process.
One of the participants, Mrs. Nnenna Agwu said the opportunity of participating in the town hall meeting afforded her a good understanding of her civic responsibilities especially within the context of the coming 2015 elections, as well as monitoring what the local authorities were doing.
She said: “Before now, I did not realize the importance of monitoring projects in my local government. But with the knowledge from this town hall meeting, I am better informed about the things I can do as a citizen to ensure there is good governance in my locality.” Speaking in a similar vein, another participant, Mr. Egonu Linus said of the town hall dialogue: “It has opened my eyes in such a way that I can now speak confidently about what constitutes good governance. AS we speak, my community lacks good governance; this town hall meeting has equipped me to engage, and find solutions to the problems we face in the area of lack of governance.”
Armsfree Ajanaku is Media Manager Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), a coalition of over 400 civil society organizations
Culled from The Guardian