Alternatives for citizen oversight in the Delta State, Nigeria

Advocacy visit Ebu Eboma

Advocacy visit to Ebu Eboma, Delta State

Our right to know what the government is doing and how it is using citizens’ taxes may seem an obvious feature of a democracy.  That is why we call it “public information”. Yet much information is not that “public” in many African democracies, and often there is no law supporting access to that information. Typically, secrecy is still the rule in many countries. As information disclosure is one of the main ways of deterring officials from stealing or misusing public funds, corruption cases abound in the absence of that disclosure. However, many civil society organisations (CSOs) worldwide are making great efforts to change that situation. They promote access to information and citizen participation in using that information. One such CSO is the Afro Centre for Development Peace and Justice (Afrodep) in the Delta State in Nigeria.

Festus Keneboh was the Executive Director of Afrodep.  He was an enthusiastic member of one of the Learning Alliances under the ELLA Programme, a UK Aid funded south-south knowledge initiative that mixes research, exchange and learning to inspire evidence-based policies and practices. Together with FUNDAR, a Mexican think tank, Practical Action Consulting Latin America managed a Learning Alliance on Citizen Oversight in which Festus and peers from Latin America, Africa and Asia participated. Members discussed many topics, including how citizen participation mechanisms should enable public institutions to maximise the impact of public policy by highlighting inconsistencies or mismanagement in the design and implementation of programmes. After the four-month dialogue, it was clear to all participants that although legal frameworks for access to information and transparency play a critical role in the success of these mechanisms, of equal importance is the readiness of governments and public officials to collaborate with civil society, to discuss that information as well as the conclusions resulting from that dialogue.

To this backdrop Festus developed a proposal on public accountability and citizen participation in budget processes for the Delta State in Nigeria where he saw conditions were suitable for such an approach. After many comings and goings, the core of the idea was accepted and a programme proposal was approved for UNDP funding, in collaboration with the Overseas Development Department and the Ministry of Economic Planning for Delta State of Nigeria. When the project started in late 2012, it established three Information Action Centres (IACs) across the state (in Ndokwa West Local Government, Ika South Local Government and Aniocha North Local Government) that would serve as a hub to access and disseminate information to citizens on public budgets.

Community consultationDelta State

Community consultation in Delta State

Tragically, Festus died one year after the project started. But by then, the IACs were functioning as centres where citizens could not only ask for specific information on public programmes but where they could also comment on and propose changes to public programmes and request additional information. Festus’s wife, Augusta, is continuing his legacy and now leads the project.  She is pleased to say that the IACs have improved transparency and increased local government’s responsiveness to citizens in the areas where it operates. She highlights that during these years, Afrodep has used some of the practices learnt from Latin American countries on promoting social accountability and transparency in government projects. Most useful was the guidance on how to track public budgets.

Although IACs still face many challenges, they have achieved changes towards more inclusive and democratic local governance. Community leaders and communities at large are now more aware of their participation rights and more able to speak out on how services are being delivered.  The IACs are also now seen by the local governments less as a threat mechanism and more as a complement to support their functions. So even though citizens do not enjoy full rights to information access, the IACs have proven to be an alternative option when citizens do not have a law that underpins their demands.

Stories like Festus Keneboh’s and his role in promoting information access and citizen oversight in Nigeria show that south-south exchange can contribute to change when there are windows of opportunity, and where programmes work with committed, capable individuals able to deploy the knowledge they picked up when the opportunity develops.

In the ELLA programme UK Aid bet on the benefits of south-south learning. Festus’s story is just one case among the many registered by the programme.  Knowledge exchange between regions of the ´global south’ can work, even where countries are very different, when sufficient attention is paid to identifying and understanding context.  In this case, the knowledge shared inspired the design of a civil society project that is providing opportunities for citizen participation to improve public services.

This article has been written by Alicia Quezada, Manager of Practical Action Consulting Latin America, and is based on an interview with Augusta Keneboh (14 March 2016) and programme reports, including a report on the ELLA Learning Alliance on Citizen Oversight “Module 3: Improving Government Accountability through Mechanisms for Citizen Participation” and AFRODEP IAC Biannual Report 2012-2015.
You can contact Mark Lewis if you want to know more about the ELLA Programme and Alicia Quezada if you want to engage with Practical Action Consulting Latin America.
CC This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
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