An election does not a democracy make… Once you know the truth, everything else follows.
Information is a powerful tool. It generally leads to knowledge, and knowledge improves and illuminates our lives.
Consider the recent “Arab Spring” that re-arranged the entire political landscape of the Middle East, it was possible due to the unprecedented access to information by majority of citizens through various social media outlets. The people found access to information, they organized themselves rapidly and the revolution happened. Once you know the truth, everything else follows.
Louis Brandell once famously quipped, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Truth is the electric light here and Nigeria is in dire need of cleansing.
The Nigerian government is notorious for her complete lack of transparency or accountability. A couple of summers ago, I was in Nigeria working on the Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Intervention project by the Federal Ministry of Health. I needed to collect data from various government agencies and parastatals. I would routinely ask for departmental budgets and accounts ledgers and the credulous expressions on the faces of the civil servants in the ministry left me dejected.
They were first amused and then annoyed, when I pressed for evidence for the numbers and prices they quoted to me. “We have accounts but it is not your right to view it”, I would hear.
As I worked on the project, the alien relationship between the government and the people governed became more and more apparent. The fact that our president claims he does not “give a damn” in response to widespread criticism, or that Honourable Farouk Lawan thought he could get away with selling his responsibility for accountability to the highest bidder shows what we are up against.
I strongly believe that without a constant and sustained demand for good governance by all Nigerians, our government(s) will not bother to do better.
So what works?
Last year, President Goodluck Jonathan passed the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act into law. This law guarantees the “right for any person to request information, “whether or not contained in any written form which is in the custody or possession of any public official, agency or institution”. The law gives any public institution 7 days to provide information as requested by any Nigerian.
Furthermore, if such a request is denied, the Nigerian can sue within 30 days and the judiciary must hear the case and offer her judgment. This is an incentive for the government to remain accountable and conduct Nigerian business legally and cleanly. The idea of transparency and openness leading to development is one that has been well established in research. The availability of public information to the governed is unquestionably the bedrock of a true democracy. The FOI Act is obviously a game changer.
If we are to change the unsustainable and dangerous course our country seems to be currently on, we must begin using this FOI tool to shine a constant light on the business of the Nigerian government. We may spend billions of naira to elect seemingly progressive or good men to govern us, however, without our ability to look in on them, to check on their progress or lack of it, with or without their consent, we have done nothing.
An election does not a democracy make. An election with a fully functioning FOI law and a truly engaged polity is a fantastic start towards building a truly democratic society. I cannot stress this point enough.
The very presence of rules that establishes and guarantees access to governance data for citizens automatically makes the country very attractive to foreign investment and thus, leads to economic growth. The FOI law is our way of making our presidents, governors, and legislators give just a little damn.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.