In the last weeks of August 2012 Seun Onigbinde took on the role of Chief Science and Technology Innovator.
In Nigeria, titles like this are amorphous, they only mean what you make of them. What does a twenty-six year old do with an innovative new project with great potential to empower ordinary Nigerians by revealing the dark arts of their government’s spending?
How do you guarantee results in a country where nothing works the way it’s supposed to?
“Leaving the job at the bank came with how BudgIT was scaling,” he explains when I ask about his life before BudgIT, the civic organization he started in 2011, in response to calls for a more transparent budgetary process.
“I was still working at the bank and it was at that point that I felt it was time to take a step out.
It was a turning point moment to leave the Bank and It was Bosun Tijani who was the head of Co-Creation Hub that finally encouraged me when he said ‘You won’t go hungry’. I can’t forget his words.”
It did not take long after that decision for donors to begin supporting his and Joseph Agunbiade’s social accountability startup. Onigbinde, recognized today as one of Nigeria’s young leaders, is by no means on welfare.
The inscription at the entrance of the BudgIT office at Yaba is a subtle primer for the principle that has guided the organization through its unorthodox beginning as an idea for a way to teach citizens about the annual budget through social media. Onigbinde’s idea came second best of the lot at 2011 hackathon (‘nobody’ really remembers the first), and grew to become Nigeria’s foremost Transparency watchdog.
Portraits and small profiles of human rights activists line the walls at the BudgIT offices, each one modest when compared to the centerpiece photographs of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
The effect is at once inspiring and humbling, a reminder of the heights and sacrifices that come folded into effective activism. The challenge might not have changed in BudgIT’s 8 years of operations, but the scope has certainly grown.
Onigbinde’s BudgIT had barely taken off when Nigerians began protesting allegations of inflated budgets; most memorably the ‘Gucci rice’ and ‘Louis Vuitton’ beans on the presidential menu at Aso Villa.
In that same period, the government had implemented an egregious hike on fuel prices, blaming the withdrawal of fuel subsidies.
Having previously tried his hands on other projects such as one on Climate Change, he and his team became convinced of their startup’s potential to serve a real need during the 2012 Occupy Nigeria protests, which sought to push legislation to reduce bloated government expenditure and force more accountability in how the Nigerian government was run.
“There was a gap and it was as if there was a need for someone to fill that void and we were just opportune to be there at the right time.
“People were looking for facts and ways to validate their opinion and we were there to step into that place.
“We made the Budget much moredetaill so that people could easily engage more, and I think that was what really transformed what we were doing. For me, it was exciting”.
Seven years and thousands of budget-revealing tweets later, Onigbinde and company have changed public expectations of government helped start campaigns like #OpenNASS.
BudgIT: Not Just the Budget
My first interactions with BudgIT came in 2016. I was a Lagos JJC, and an invitation to the Cost Of Corruption discussion seemed like my chance to get into the thick of nation-building.
I was so excited to meet the people demystifying Nigeria’s often convoluted budget and the processes around it that I showed up a whole week early.
The event was, as clearly indicated on my Eventbrite receipt, to hold the following Wednesday.
Sufficiently chastened, I returned a week later to watch Mr Tunji Lardner and LEAP Africa’s Ndidi Nwuneli lead a room of about 50 Nigerians honestly dissecting issues that dog our polarizing nation.
For Onigbinde, offline events like these are just as important to the mission as the sleek, hard-hitting infographics BudgIT has pioneered in Nigeria’s non-profit circles.
“It is something you have to learn when you are running a business; you know your primary target and you stay true to that.
“But you need to ask yourself what other connected and contextual opportunities that you can take advantage of, much like Coca-Cola selling bottled water and flavoured drinks.”
He lists BudgIT’s four key focus areas as Budget Access, Project Tracking, Extractive Transparency and Institutional Support.
The latter involves training for media and civil society organisations, as well as collaboration with international partners whose interests are allied. However wide its wings may spread, BudgIT will not derail from the battle to drive Fiscal Transparency with the core motivation “that public resources must work for the people and that prosperity must be shared” to produce a functional society.
Investing in the people of Nigeria’ is one of BudgIT’s flagship campaigns of 2018 and Onigbinde is confident that the organisation’s impact is more offline than online, highlighting Tracka’s presence in 20 states and over 600 communities with a reach to over 3 million people.
“We are the thorn in the flesh of most of the legislators in Nigeria”, he says, without no irony.
You Must Constantly Probe!
In 2011, Onigbinde was convinced that Muhamadu Buhari, then a shrill opposition candidate had what it take to become a revolutionary president.
Four years later, Onigbinde’s motivations had changed, the president at the time Goodluck Jonathan had failed many of his pre-election milestones and BudgIT did its part to monitor the proceedings during the elections.
Onigbinde remembers eagerly rolling his sleeves and putting posters of the contrarian ‘reformed democrat’ on the streets of his neighbourhood at his mum’s home in Ibadan.
He finds himself in the same place he was in 2014, disillusioned with President Buhari’s government and its refusal to embrace political transparency.
The “360 moment”, as he calls it, was the president’s hitting-the-Generals-chest remarks following the clash between the Nigeria Army and demonstrating members of Sheikh El Zakzaky’s Islamic Movement of Nigeria in 2015.
A wistful Onigbinde bemoans his failure to “interrogate (Buhari) well enough and ask enough questions because we assumed many things on his behalf”.
Many of the president’s supporters did not anticipate that the failure of his government would ripple into a loss of credibility for them as well, especially now as the 2019 elections approach.
Onigbinde gladly asks not to be listened to, his regret on Buhari bothering on despondency:
“It’s broken a whole lot of things in me. When I look at anybody trying to run for office, I just have a cheeky smile because the trust for me is really broken when it comes to anybody in public office. Maybe until I find someone who is really close to me and I can have an influence in his government, maybe then I could be much more interested”.
For 2019, he’s not endorsing any candidate or advising anyone to vote anyone, asking only that Nigerians not repeat the mistakes of 2015 and duly question whoever “the elite consensus” decides should be president.
His focus instead is on holding the current government accountable, no matter the consequences for BudgIT.
There was definitely nothing remotely obsequious about a February 2017 letter signed by Onigbinde and 16 others including Yemi Adamolekun of Enough is Enough Nigeria, and Feyi Fawehinmi, known as @DoubleEph on Twitter, which called for the dismissal of CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele. It is one of those moves which Onigbinde would make over again should the need for it arise.
“you must constantly probe as long as something is still left to be fixed in the society. In every society, there are interests of the people and those of the political class and if you don’t stay on the issues, your interest will not happen”
Back to School, to Relearn and Unlearn
As the elections move into full gear in 2019, Seun is taking some time away from the perpetual engine that is 55 Moleye street.
He will spend the next twelve months as one of the Obama Foundation Scholars at Columbia University in New York.
It is, even by the standard of his already impressive collection of eight fellowships, an astounding achievement for the son of a teacher who once had to move from a private school in Lagos back to Ibadan because his family fell in dire financial straits.
When I ask what moments stand out at his time here, he lists his speech at Chatham House last year and every alert notifying of the receipt of a donor’s grant.
But he is most tender when I ask about Bill Gates. The world’s most popular philanthropist was in Nigeria earlier in the year and had good words for BudgIT’s work mentioning its lead partner by name.
It was, for Onigbinde, a “validation” which he humbly received and after the opportunity to sit with the radical billionaire, there will be more doors open for collaboration.
He stops short of placing Mr Gates’ commendation at the top of his trophy cabinet, however, effusively acknowledging the relationships he has built with his team at BudgIT as his most rewarding. It was, after all, their dedication to the cause that enabled him to pivot from his safe but boring career in financial services, to take on activism.
“I didn’t figure out everything when I started this journey. I wanted to make a difference, to change the world in my own little space.”
Seun tells me, far more relaxed than when we began talking, “I was probing and saying ‘what exactly can I do’. I’ve been really lucky”.
Because his success has inspired many Nigerians to segue into non-profit work, Onigbinde has been forced to take on the role of the public chider of non-profit showrunners using grants for self-betterment, appreciating that he has “been a bit privileged with some opportunities that have come along the journey with donors who have supported us all the way” and crediting “Nigerians who believe in our cause and have given us words of encouragement and used our products”.
Those Nigerians and a low turnover of staff who “have always believed in what we have been doing and have stayed true to the cause” are the reasons why, though 8500km away, Onigbinde is able to focus on doing his assignments and submitting to Ivy-league classroom instructors while Gabriel Okeowo – with whom he is well pleased – maintains the creed inscribed on BudgIT’s doors.
“For me, the journey has just been interesting and I look at it like it’s time to take a step back to relearn and unlearn some things, apply new techniques to how some things can be done”.
Seun Onigbinde undertook a small tour of Oyo North before departing for New York and has commenced work on expounding on his 22 existential questions in a book featuring subject matter experts and ideas such as “graduated restructuring”.
When published, it could be his vade mecum for a possible public office run, something he is not ruling out in the near future.
He will be building on his performance back at the Federal University of Agriculture in Abeokuta, coming so close to the Student Union Presidency:
“I lost by 21 votes and it was one of the most painful moments in my life”.
Should that pain someday turn to electoral joy, what should Nigerians expect?
“If you find me in public office tomorrow, hold me to account in a very, very rigorous way”.