Updated: It is not uncommon to hear the government of our great country make promises which they never follow through on. The citizens have become so used to it that they no longer get hopeful when such promises are made. Nigerians are resilient people and we adapt easily so we have acclimated to life as it is and have stopped expecting or demanding for what is ours by right.
This probably happens because the citizens are self sufficient and some can afford to survive without government intervention. Unfortunately, some cannot and they suffer untold hardship when funds meant for their development is diverted. It is for this reason that some young people came together to start a non-governmental organisation that holds the government accountable and ensures that citizens in rural areas receive their dues. Connected Development, CODE, is the name of this organization and I had the pleasure of sitting with the CEO of Connected Development to discuss their pro-government achievements.
Below is the excerpt:
Kindly introduce yourself.
My name is Hamzat Lawal, I am the Chief Executive of Connected Development, CODE, and I am the Co-Founder of Follow the Money which is our most popular intervention so far.
Does that mean you run two organizations?
Connected Development is a registered non-governmental organization that seeks to provide information and try to create platform for informed debate between citizens and government but our Follow the money is an initiative of Connected Development that deals with issues around transparency and accountability, engaging citizens and ensuring that public funds for rural communities are accounted for.
Can you give us all the details of the duties CODE performs?
Connected Development has four thematic areas; we have transparency and accountability, youth engagement and empowerment, we deal with issues around climate change, and also we deal with what we call issues around conflict areas. Because we belong to a group called the digital humanitarian network, it’s a group that is being coordinated by UNOCHA and we are actually one of the strongest members in the African region because this group is hosted around the world and we help during crises to provide digital information using technology.
You mentioned your affiliation to UNOCHA.
Yes UNOCHA, United Nations Office for the coordination Of Humanitarian affairs.
What is the relationship between CODE and UNOCHA?
The relationship is they coordinate our activities under the digital humanitarian network. They provide funding and other logistics while we implement, we support. Say for instance we get activation during maybe Boko Haram Insurgents, or maybe during flooding or what happened in the Asian country – the earthquake – or other disasters. So we get activated when things like that happen and UNOCHA coordinate, we bring our resource, our skills and knowledge together to help our disaster prone community adapt and survive the disaster.
When did CODE start?
Connected Development was founded in two thousand and ten, but we started operations in two thousand and twelve.
What has it been like, what have you achieved within those years?
Our Follow the Money initiative has been really successful in terms of engaging citizens and pressurizing government to act. What Follow the Money does is we advocate. In two thousand and twelve, in Zamfara state, there was lead poison outbreak that killed over four hundred children so at that time they needed over eight hundred and fifty million Naira for intervention. So what we did was to advocate for the release of that fund and the President released the fund after our social media campaign where we were able to use Twitter and Facebook to put pressure on the President and also collaborating with groups like the Human Right Watch and getting our stories on Aljazeera, BBC, CNN, from Twitter. Then,when this money was approved. In Nigeria, overtime, you hear on radio, you read on Newspaper, you watch on TV that government is rolling out various interventions for rural people worth billions of Naira but then years after years you go to that community and nothing is being done. So what we did was to ensure that we track these funds from Abuja down to Zamfara state and most importantly visualize how these funds are being used. We don’t do monitoring and evaluations like how government does. We don’t follow documents because documents can always be forged, receipts can be provided. So what we do is we report what we see with our eyes, that’s verifiable evidence, data on the ground and we report this and visualize this in a way that citizens can easily relate to and understand so they can also provide feedback. But most importantly capturing the voices of these communities and amplifying them. So what we do is we document the needs of this community, put them on all our social media platform and also talk about them on radio and TV when we have the chances to do so. So that’s how we use Follow the Money to ensure governance, transparency and accountability.
In November two thousand and fifteen there was an award, or approval, by the Federal Executive Council of nine point two billion to procure seven hundred and fifty thousand cooking stoves and eighteen thousand and at that time it was a political period where the PDP and APC are campaigning and everybody is using public money, or rather the ruling government is using public money to sponsor their campaign and for us we got the feelers that these funds would be diverted if nobody talks about it and at that time the citizens were also not happy because we had high level of insecurity, high level of unemployment and other social vices. So what we did was, noting that most people in Connected Development are activists and environmentalists and knowing that annually we use three percent of our forest cover and Northern Nigeria is now turning into a desert and also annually from a report by the World health organisation women die from cooking with open fire. Over ninety five thousand women actually die from using firewood to cook so this is not sustainable and we know that this kind of intervention is meant to help these rural women to curb desert encroachment, smoke from cooking that kills them… So what we did was to start a stakeholders meeting and a debate – online and offline debate around it. Also we traveled down to Sokoto and other northern states to sensitize the women and make them aware of this initiative because most household -every household in Nigeria has a mobile phone, but not all of them are connected to the internet. Most households in the north depend on radio for access to information, so we collaborate with organizations like the BBC Hausa radio so that we’re able to share this information so we go to the communities, prepare them for this intervention and make them aware of how much is being budgeted, what is meant to come to their community, so this also helps to raise their consciousness and make them demand more from government and empower them to be able to engage with their local government counselor, the chairman or their state governors during town hall meetings which we sometimes co-organise with our partners. So what we achieve with this is to ensure that this project – because apparently the government didn’t have plan, they just wanted to embezzle the nine point two billion. So from our intervention they were able to halt this project and now the case is even in court because there is now disagreement between the contractor and the government and now citizens are aware so we are informed that they are also still demanding “what is the end result of this?” So, that’s one of our huge successes and now we are running another campaign because there’s lead poison outbreak in Niger state which has killed over two twenty children, so now we are now advocating for the release of funds and from the feelers we are getting, the budget that will be needed will be below one million dollars. We are hoping that our new president will release this fund then we’ll follow the fund from Abuja to Niger state so they can get remediation that’s environmental cleanup. Our doctors without borders are currently on ground, hopefully to treat our children for free like they did in Zamfara so that they can start treatment and put this miners into cooperatives, empower them and provide them with inventive to mine properly.
So that’s some of our projects. We are also running another project under the Great Cream Wall. It’s an initiative that engages eleven frontline states in northern Nigeria to build what we call the shelter belt which connects to other African countries to curb desertification and desert encroachment.
Some time ago ten billion naira was approved for this initiative. The World Bank have also given money, European Union have also approved money. So what we’re trying to do is to visualize how they intend to use this money and also how they intend to engage citizens to take ownership. Because for us it is important that government intervention – citizens take ownership of them and have a sense of belonging so that they become sustainable overtime because government will come and go but citizens will always remain in their community and transfer this knowledge to the younger generation.
You mentioned CODE Nigeria and also CODE Africa. What is the difference?
CODE Africa is another organisation, which is a partner of CODE and they have specific countries affiliated to their organization, like CODE South Africa, CODE Kenya, CODE Uganda… I’ve met some of their representatives in other countries during the Open Data Conference that was held in Tanzania last year, but they are our very good partners and they also supported our Open Data Party. So yes, we have one initiatve that we run annually – once a year – it’s called Open Data Party. It’s a conference where we bring journalists, data enthusiasts, activists, campaigners, academia and teach them how to use data, put them into infographics and easily readable format, make it open and easily accessible to citizens so they can get more informed and engage in government intervention or probably health education, whatever interest they have, so they can know how to use data, and disaggregate them. So we build capacity and share creative tools that will help enhance their work. So last year’s Open Data Party the CODE for Africa through the CODE for Nigeria supported our Open Data Party.
Does that mean that CODE Africa started first then opened CODE in other countries?
Yes but Connected Development, CODE, is different from CODE NIGERIA. It’s independent. We are not affiliated to anybody.
If I get you right, you are not CODE Nigeria, or CODE Africa, you are just CODE and you partner with them?
Yes they are our partners. We even started before them but they now have CODE for Africa and they are more into coding; using technology to create apps, but we don’t do because we are more of villagers. We like going to communities, we like engaging with citizens that don’t even know internet exists.
Which people came together to form CODE because from all you’ve said it sounds like a very big organisation, one that probably only the government or multinationals can actually start but from the look of things, it was started by regular people. So tell me who and who came together and how were you able to succeed at it?
It’s just random people that were involved. It was started by my partner, Oludotun Babayemi. We started it in two thousand and ten and in two thousand and twelve we were able to kick off. Then why we didn’t start operations in twenty ten was because we all had our day jobs. As much as we were passionate that we want to inform change or be part of that change and inspire we also need to make money to sustain ourselves and to also pay the bills that would come from running an organization so that was why we took two years to save some money. In two thousand and thirteen we got our first grant from the Indigo Trust which was over nine thousand pounds, but at that time it was two point five million Naira and this fund was meant to provide us our office space, pay for our internet and then pay for our community outreach, but right now we’ve gotten another grant for twenty thousand pounds, paid salary and we have a grant of hundred thousand dollars to run our campaign. Each campaign costs approximately twenty thousand dollars.
So you mostly rely on grants?
Yes we survive on grants from international donors.
Are you planning to generate money through CODE thereby making it a profit making venture anytime soon?
If you look our concept, it’s not a business, it will always rely on donor or grant because again as much as we also need grant to survive we also need to be independent, we need to be credible. We need to keep our integrity intact. We can’t take money from probably the Nigerian government. We can collaborate with the government but we can’t take money from them. We have to rely on donor agencies that will allow us be independent and run our organisation the way we want to. Follow the Money is relatively new, not just in Nigeria but in every part of the world because we’ve been invited to Germany and other African and European countries, even In the US to come and talk about Follow the Money and it’s local knowledge, local content that we are using. We are not importing anything. Now we are even trying to export. We are discussing with Cameroon, Ghana, other west African countries and they are excited about what we do and the other activists there, they want us to come and share knowledge and information so they can tap from it.
Does this mean that without grants CODE will be non-existent?
No, it would not die.
How will you fund it?
Because the passion is there to run it. We have that passion and we have that belief that that money would come because what we do is very credible, it’s very genuine and we can measure impact. That is why, when we go out on campaigns, we take specific campaigns where we can measure impact or failure and then document these and popularise it to the entire world. So we share our information. It’s very open – open and easily accessible. And it’s innovative.
So far you’ve been making mention of the north. Is CODE just for the northern states of Nigeria?
No, but why we focus mostly in the north is because if you look at the development index released by United Nations, development in northern Nigeria is relatively low. There’s high rate of poverty in the north, high rate of malnutrition, high rate of everything related to slow development in the north. So that’s why we are focusing all our strength in the north, hoping that we’ll be able to use our platform to uplift them, but now we are getting feelers from other states outside the north, so we are now still looking and thinking through it if we should move across. And again, like I said, we like to focus on what we can achieve, measure impact and then document so… and you’ll need plenty resources to expand or move from specific regions. We are very happy and comfortable working in the north so – we’ll see, time will tell, now that we are now going to other West African countries.
You mentioned the development index in the north, is this because the Federal Government of Nigeria do not allocate enough funds to those in the north or they do, but the fault is from the state government?
Most times it’s not about allocation but how do you manage these applications that come, what do you use them for? Over time in Nigeria, no one asks the question of ‘how much is my local government or my state government getting? How much is meant for education, health or for the environment? Nobody asks these questions. Nobody asks ‘What was it used for? You had our twenty fourteen allocation, how did you spend it?’ So if we are able to create that consciousness then we will start seeing value for our money because when I say our money, this money is not the government’s money, it is tax payers money and we pay tax so that we can get basic amenities by government that we either elect of are appointed by people we elect.
So we are trying to make citizens understand that when you get this it’s not that you have to go and thank the government. It’s actually your right. If you don’t demand you won’t get supplied so we are trying to now engage citizens to make that demand, make them very conscious to ask these regular questions ‘What did you get? what did you use it for? Why was it like this and why was my voice not captured in this?’ Because when they talk about government it is meant to be open and engaging.
So are you still planning to get our government to be accountable for the funds meant for citizens at the local government level or have you began achieving that already?
We have already started to make them accountable.
And so far, what has it been like?
It’s been really exciting. It comes with its own challenges because most of the areas where we work they don’t speak English so we have to translate most of this information into Hausa and maybe put it in infographics and pictures to make them understand. We see those challenges as opportunities, opportunities for us to explore other local innovations that we can now use to uplift our people.
What future plans do you have for CODE?
My plan is to see CODE very independent, both financially and then expand and have more Nigerians able to join, to contribute, take ownership and run with it and it’s also important to know that – because for us we believe that governance is about resource mobilisation and control. So we applied to the Independent National Electoral Commission, we observed during the two thousand and fifteen general elections. We mobilised over one thousand local observers in thirty one states in Nigeria to observe and send real time information on what is happening in different polling units.
For us we are not about the numbers – that’s the results – we are about the processes that ensured that end result because if you look at the electoral tribunal it’s still the processes that you see lawyers come and argue. So we focus on the processes and we also ensure that we were able to provide real time information to security agents to curb violence which, remember, before the twenty fifteen elections we had high rate of violence and people that lost properties worth billions, so we were able to now send information before hand if there is that aggression between citizens, or police harassment, ballot snatching, ballot stuffing, because these things actually trigger violence. So we report them and get the agent with this information to respond before it springs into something bigger.
Among the points mentioned as the future you see for CODE, you mentioned being financially independent, how do you plan to achieve that since you are an NGO?
How we hope to achieve this is to get our donors to contribute more because we believe that it we are able to show value for money that donor funding – we’ll be able to have an increase in the grant that we get and then we can now see philanthropists in Nigeria and outside Nigeria commit some specific amount of their wealth to be dedicated to Follow the Money project or Connected Development project to ensure citizens engagement, transparency and accountability.
Can you tell us how people can connect with CODE via social media?
Our website is www.connecteddevelopment.org . Follow the Money website is; www.followthemoneng.org . Our CODE twitter handle is @connected_dev and Follow the Money handle is @4lowthemoney and we are also on Instagram and Facebook. Also on YouTube and on Sound Cloud.
One last question, if a Nigerian citizen feels their community is underdeveloped how do they get you to take up their case?
They can activate us via radio, via our website, or via Twitter. They can tweet at us. When we are on radio or even when we are not on air we have this partnership with Nigeria Info, Cool FM and Wazobia so you can call in and say that your community is in need of help if they can please send a message to follow the money, the editors will reach out to us.
Will that be Cool FM Lagos or Abuja?
Both Abuja and Lagos.
So if they contact you, you’ll definitely do something about it?
Definitely. Why cool FM hosted me was so I could share what we are doing in the north with people in Lagos and if any young person is inspired to take it up in Lagos, it’s open, it’s free and it’s really exciting.