Archive How not to run a National Conference! By ‘Sola...

How not to run a National Conference! By ‘Sola Fagorusi

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Confab logoIn the thinking of the government, it is rationalised that the 492 delegates representing 170 million Nigerians are carrying their thoughts, ideas, arguments and persuasions into the belly of the National Judicial Institute, Abuja where the conference is being held. At the conference, it is hoped the ‘long-standing impediments to the cohesion and harmonious development’ of Nigeria will be discussed. In elementary mathematics, it simply means there is one delegate per approximately 345,000 Nigerians at the Conference. It is not the first time some Nigerians would be selected to discuss the future of the post-colonial contraption called Nigeria. What has however changed from the time when the previous conferences were held and now is the emergence of social media technology. It has entirely changed the definition of media and communications.

While this is not the first National Conference in the country, it is however the first post-social media emergence. It is the first National Conference in Nigeria with a website dedicated to it. The first inkling that social media would play a role in the three months scheduled discussion emerged following three events that went viral on social media space last week. The first being online debates about the N12 million allowance for each delegate and the further demand by some delegates for allowances for their aides. The second was the picture of some men with close eye lids in the auditorium while the opening session was in progress. Expectedly, there was several jokes in cyber space about how too early into the conference it was for anyone to be caught napping. The third was the advert credited to Inkas Environmental Protection Limited congratulating Bola Shagaya for being part of the conference and for her anticipated contributions! The full page advert was titled – Where is She going Next? The National Conference. It was the butt of joke on twitter last week. Social media must be allowed to play a role deeper than this at the conference.

Mr. James Akpandem, the Assistant Secretary, Media and Communications might after all be a major factor in determining how successful the conference will be if he ensures the right tools are deployed. He may also be the gatekeeper to determine what kind of discussions would filter into the auditorium to enrich the discussions and deliberations about the prospect of future development for this most populated country in Sub-Saharan Africa. I will explain in a bit.

Enter Iceland, a country of about 320,000 people and the most sparsely populated country in Europe. In 2011, the people resident in the Reykjavik, the country’s capital and other parts of the country set a new world record in participatory governance. What exactly did they do? In what was unprecedented, the country had its constitution reviewed through crowdsourcing of input using four main channels – Facebook, twitter, the country’s official website and YouTube. For a country that runs a representative democracy with the prime minister together with the cabinet being responsible for the executive function of government, Iceland’s novel idea was predictably accepted and the constitution also seen by all citizens as the thorough ‘We the people’ document. It is the first crowd sourced constitution on the planet. The singular act changed the paradigm of participation to bottom-top from the reverse that it used to be in the country.

In 2008, the country was hit by a huge financial crisis and in the search for solution, the idea to review the constitution which had been in operation since 1944 when the country gained independence from Denmark was hatched. What the country did was to embrace new media technology all through the process. In 2010, it used a computer to randomly pick 950 citizens to attend the National Conference on the Constitution with every Icelander 18 years and above standing a chance of being picked. The group simply listed and arrived at issues that needed to be debated and reviewed. The country went ahead to elect 25 assembly members from 522 ordinary citizens who had expressed interest in the process and from different professions (media, academics, clergy, lawyers etc.) By 2011, the group of 25 which was gender inclusive and also included a Person Living with Disability, PLWD presented a new constitution draft to the Iceland’s parliament. In arriving at this final draft, the group put up an initial draft online and let citizens engage through social networks and also through the conventional means of letter writing. Those who wanted to air their opinions through YouTube videos did so. Young people who were willing to tweet their ideas to this group did so while some also left comments on the interactive website of the country in addition to Facebook likes and comments. Meanwhile, a live stream of all the meetings of the group was also made available on the internet to allow the public engage well with the process. All the opinions were carefully gathered and filtered and are included in the present constitution of Iceland which was put to a referendum before commencement of use.

The small country’s effort here is a model for any nation practising democracy in the world. Not even the fathers of the World Wide Web would have imagined two decades back that new media would have been put to such fecund use.

jdWhile the social media literacy rate of Nigerians may be a factor in adoption of such model wholesomely, there are however lessons to be learnt from the iconic Icelandic model. Back to the on-going National Conference, it is commendable that the organizers have opened a website for the three months event that resumed on Monday in Abuja. The website – www.nigerianationalconference2014.org needs to do more than its promise to update Nigerians on a ‘daily basis update on all the proceedings’, it has to be real time and interactive. Whoever is in charge needs to amend the social media plugins from not just being one to share information on the website but also to accommodate comments from Nigerians. If you ask me, I would rather the website is integrated into the official site of the country. Knowing our indifference to archiving information, it is not impossible that one year after today, that site would no longer be available to the public for historic and academic reviews. It is not enough to only inform, it should also allow the variegated voice of the people who will not be at the National Conference but will be at the receiving end of decisions made during the conference count and reflect in the final document. That is what true democratic participation entails. Nigeria stands to score a first on the continent if it embraces this approach and also lets output from same distinctively reflect in its final report. Perhaps, tools like Survey Monkey would also aid the online voting and decision making process.

But then, I clairvoyantly fault whatever the implantation of the output of the national conference will be especially because it would take more than having a fantastic output to alter the wrong direction the country is presently headed. Beyond the genuine clamour to make the citizenry voice count through the use of social media, is the country’s leadership sincere enough to wield the big stick when it needs to; and build enduring systems and institutions to make our laws binding on all despite the clear social stratification?

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‘Sola Fagorusi is a freelance writer and social entrepreneur. He maintains a weekly column in the Punch newspaper on Mondays and is the programmes manager of onelifeinitiative.org; a start-up non-profit. He tweets @SolaFagro.

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