by Eromo Egbejule
In certain parts of Nigeria, there is a joke that when an abandoned project is suddenly revisited after months of neglect or a new one started out of the blues months after the contract was awarded, one has to look around for a neighbour and ask if elections are around the corner.
The only truth that comes out of a politician’s mouth, goes one of my mother’s favourite wisecracks, is his ‘Good Morning’. And even then, she adds for good measure, you must pause to steal a glance at the skies and confirm that the sun is indeed up, before you answer.
It is precisely this sort of thinking that makes my compatriots carp repeatedly about the state of the country. As Chinua Achebe once famously wrote, “The trouble with Nigeria has become the subject of our small talk in much the same way as the weather is for the English.” Very few care to do more than complain, to engage those responsible to ensure proper governance and to a large extent, this is caused by mass nonchalance and an ignorance of the workings of the budget and of government in general, of the almost unlimited capacity of the citizen to kindle a fire for good.
Enter BudgIT. The Lagos-based nonprofit is one of the many initiatives springing up in contemporary Nigeria, seeking to encourage citizen participation in governance as well as fiscal transparency. It interprets financial data released by government into less complex and readily accessible information, complete with visuals for easy digestion by anyone from civil servant to school pupil.
“Most times, the figures in the news can be dizzying and confusing”, its Operations Manager, Stanley Achonu tells me as we sit chatting at his office. “People can’t make sense of what it means or how it affects their lives. Some think it is just numbers and this speaks volumes of the disconnect between them and government. Our illustrations show them what could have been.”
Founded in 2011 by a former banker with First Bank of Nigeria, Oluseun Onigbinde, it is the product of a Tech-in-Governance hackathon at CC-Hub,Nigeria’s premier technology space leading the charge for startup clusters around Yaba, Lagos. In his words, “in the simplest forms made available by social media, BudgIT brings the government to the people, fomenting participation for all who are so inclined.” Their work which got seed funding from Indigo Trust has unearthed not a few discoveries – including the shocking transparency of the Federal Government budget and the not so detailed budgetary information by states like the Lagos State Government.
In May this year, BudgIT birthed a monitoring system called Tracka that enables residents of a community to track capital projects around them that are listed in the budget and give feedback to government and their communities. It enables registered users (no anonymous users allowed because, “with the kind of political tempo in Nigeria, imagine the kind of mischief Tracka could be used for by people seeking to discredit their political opponents?) monitor the state of ongoing projects around them and upload pictures of the present state to the app.
From the control centre, uploads bombard the email and SMS inboxes of representatives in both the executive and the parliament at state and federal level till they are so exasperated they get in touch with the contractors or the administrator who signed off on the project.
“We aspire to send it to the stakeholders as many times as possible as this is necessary to capture their attention,” Onigbinde stresses during our chat, clearly as passionate about the project in the same way people of faith are about their salvation. He and his team are leveraging on the power of social media to mobilize young people and create a lot of awareness. They are also taking the gospel to the grassroots.
I recently attended a town hall meet it organized in partnership with the Justice, Peace and Development Commission (JPDC) at Ijebu-Ode, a sleepy town one hundred kilometres away from Lagos. At the meet, I watched Achonu and a colleague patiently explain to those present on how to use Tracka in mobilizing government to finish abandoned projects and repair deteriorated ones. There have been others across the country too.
After each one, it is customary to inspect a few projects for real-time tracking and the discoveries are as shocking as they are commonplace. In the 2014 Federal Budget, the sum of N10.6m was allocated for the supply and installation of three 500KVA Transformers at three communities in Edo State. The Tracka team found out that only one has been fitted and even that has no connecting cable fixed to it.
On an earlier tour in Ipokia LGA, Ogun State, the team scheduled a visit to a tube palm oil processing centre for which the sum of N17,200,000 had been disbursed in the 2014 Federal Constituency Budget to cater for the procurement and installation of palm oil processing tools and machineries. Alas, there was not even a processing centre!
“We were surprised to discover that the same project was also listed in 2013”, said Achonu. “The location of this project is unknown. If the beneficiary community doesn’t know the location of the project, then it calls to question how the legislators that included this budget item came about it.”
It is not all bad news though. A youth development centre in Kano was found to be completed, with a multipurpose hall, classrooms, student hostels, staff quarters, administration blocks, a kitchen and installed equipment.
All of this – good or bad – barely makes it to the mainstream media. BudgIT seems to acknowledge the importance of the media’s role in dissemination of information about budgets and has been offering data journalism training to help with this, in Nigeria and other parts of the West African sub-region, including Sierra Leone.
The good work has not gone unnoticed, charming high-profile fans like finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former World Bank vice-president, Obiageli Ezekwesili as well as attracting a grant from the Omidyar Network last September to expand Tracka’s reach to six states of federation. It is also in partnership with the Open Society for West Africa and MacArthur Foundation on projects promoting transparent governance and capacity building for civil society groups. They have also worked in Sierra Leone and Nigeria to deepen discussions on the justice and security sector, a project (Access NG_SL) funded by the US State Department.
Quite a few challenges exist though. For instance, internet connectivity is still expensive and rather unreliable in Nigeria. Will BudgIT be rolling out alternative forms of the app for those who can’t afford a steady connection? Onigbinde affirms this, mentioning that “the SMS platform is a pressing area we are currently addressing, so that users of the application can report an issue using text messages. However, we are currently ironing out the logistics.”
In a country where no official database exists, obtaining the contacts of parliamentarians can be tricky business. So also is travelling to each of Nigeria/s six geo-political zones to track projects regularly, a mission that could be easier if they had more staff and of course, more money.
Hear Onigbinde, “We are grateful for the support from Omidyar Network and we look forward to more support from other organizations to enable us monitor projects in the other 30 states in Nigeria. The task to ensure service delivery and that government is more accountable to its commitments as stated in the budget. Our work to lower access to public data, show citizens the benefits of transparency and raise their sense of civic duty is continuous.”
There are results as a Primary School in Ota, 60km from Lagos has not been built though the item has serially appeared in the budget. Through their intervention through serial calls to the legislators representing the area, school foundation began. However, last week the community raised an alarm that the work has been abandoned again. They have begun to initiate calls again.
But there is hope, Onigbinde assures me. His greatest motivation in deploying Tracka is handing people the power it gives Nigerians to challenge people in authority; to remind them of the greatest political power they have – their votes and voices.
Will they take the hint?