Four key principles and/or concepts – accountability, transparency, participation and inclusion – have over the years become nearly universal guiding features of democracy, policy making and good governance. More particularly, transparency and accountability constitute the panacea for sustainable democracy in forward looking nations of the world. When people talk about governance, they lay considerable emphasis on transparency and accountability, and clearly, there is no gainsaying that these are not attainable unless citizens participate in governance processes and demand for them.
This article focuses on how ordinary citizens can contribute to the struggle for good governance characterized by transparency and accountability, but it is important to understand these principles. The United Nations Development Programme has outlined eight criteria for identifying good governance in this paper. Two of the eight particularly point to these issues of discourse. Good governance fundamentally implies accountability. A state must be accountable to those affected by the decisions made and policies implemented. The next, and as a corollary of the first, accountability presumes transparency. This simply means that the state must always strive to make the decision-making process as open as possible so that those affected will get the understanding of what government is doing and why. Transparency requires that government must always justify its decisions and actions to citizens. Transparency International also defines transparency as shedding light on rules, plans, processes and actions. It is knowing who, why, what, how, and how much. Transparency ensures public officials, civil servants, managers, board members and businessmen act visibly and understandably and report on their activities, this therefore implies that the general public can hold them accountable.
It would be unfair to push the narrative that Nigerians have not been doing anything to question unguarded, dangerous actions and policies by the government or public office holders. Matter-of-factly, Nigeria has a long history of activism. Beginning in the 1990s, organisations such as the Civil Liberties Organization and United Action for Democracy led the movement against military rule, mobilizing citizens to take a stand and organizing demonstrations in the streets. Efforts by Media Rights Agenda and others were critical to expanding civic space and protecting freedom of expression. Labour unions and civil society organizations, even in recent times, have also been at the forefront of major changes, including various economic and social policies. However, there still is a great need for citizens to push for accountability and transparency especially in a country characterized by high levels of corruption.
Like many activists believe and I do too, every change requires a demand for it. More actionable steps need to be taken to arrive at the Nigeria we all want and deserve. From increased education, grassroots engagement, checks and balances, to involvement with and support for existing CSOs and NGOs among other steps, our struggle for accountability and transparency in governance can incrementally take a swift turn towards an end.
- Education: it cannot be overemphasized that education remains of utmost importance across many areas in Nigeria. In governance, there is need for citizens to be enlightened on governance processes, public policy, political culture, citizenship, constitutional rights and responsibilities, etc. It may be surprising that some Nigerians still think, for instance, that the only way to participate in governance is by voting, which is a right many people still do not exercise by the way. That is why citizens need to be educated on the fact that participation can take many forms including (and effectively so) direct persuasive engagement with government, including advocacy and lobbying, which includes letter writing, meetings with legislators and local authorities.
- Grassroots Engagement: Change that happens from bottom to top is usually more effective, sustainable and measurable. The grassroots (local governments) is the arm the directly affects community members so it’s only natural that change actions and the demand for accountability should begin from there. A reference point to the success that grassroots engagement can achieve is the work that Aspilos Foundation has done with its Citizens’ Platform project in Kano. That has shown the tremendous power that community members can exert in mobilizing citizens, engaging with local authorities, transforming their communities and improving the lives of community members. Citizens across the country should look more to ways to engage with grassroots and demand accountability and transparency first from local authorities, than away from it.
- Increased Checks and Balances through Exercise of Freedom of Information and Expression: A proper system of checks and balances not only between the different arms of government but between the public/citizens and the government can be the key to solving Nigeria’s lack of accountability and transparency problems, which will undoubtedly lead to proper development of the country. As enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental right to information and expression grants every individual the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This was the premise on which the Freedom of Information Act was signed into law on May 28, 2011. Before the FOI Act was signed, all government information was classified as top secret. Government records that were, to say the least, basic, and some of which were already in public circles were still considered as confidential, and sharing of such information was considered a criminal offence. The FOI Act states that aside being a human right, unlimited access to information can play a fundamental role in aiding development, fostering democracy, promoting equality and ensuring proper public service delivery. This is an undeniable tool that can be used by the public, media, academics, CSOs, etc. to keep government dealings in check. However, it appears that it has not been taken full advantage of. This might be due to the fact that Nigerians are either not aware of it, or they seem to be discouraged by the bureaucratic nature of institutions in Nigeria. More work therefore needs to be done by government institutions such as the National Orientation Agency (NOA), Ministry of Information and Culture, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and other relevant agencies to create mass awareness of the importance of the Act.
- Involvement with and Support for Existing CSOs/NGOs: Many civil society organizations exist to fight for democracy, accountability and transparency in governance. These groups include but are not limited to Say No Campaign (which comprises YIAGA Africa, Civil Society and Legislative Advocacy Centre, among others), Follow the Money Nigeria, Civil Society Network Against Corruption, Enough Is Enough, and BudgIT to mention a few. Getting involved and supporting the work of these organizations can encourage improvement in the fight for accountability and transparency.
Accountability and transparency in governance is an attainable goal. A few countries have made significant progress with that, and Nigeria can too. It is through the individual and collective efforts of ordinary citizens, and institutions that we can build the governance we want. So, let’s get to work!
This article was written by Hillary Nwoziri