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Getting Down Low: Nigeria, OGP and the Sub-national Imperative

Tijah Bolton-Akpan|

Version en español »

That Nigeria is going through serious economic challenges right now is not news. What many may not realize is that the current recession represents an important opportunity for the country to do a hard reset on governance. Nowhere is that reset more imperative than at the sub-national level where most of the foolery took place that brought us to this sorry pass, and governance has all but gone to sleep. It is because of this that I think the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which Nigeria joined last June, offers us a unique platform to localize reforms.

After signing on to OGP and following up with the creation of a permanent dialogue mechanism (or national steering committee), Nigeria is currently working on the next steps, which include co-creating a national action plan. The idea is for Nigeria to commit to a set of target actions which will improve public services, improve management of public resources, empower citizens and promote innovations that work for more openness.

According to the OGP National Action Plan Guidance Note, one of the main characteristics of successful action plans is that the commitments in them must be ambitious and “stretch the government beyond its current level of practice.” For me, the real test of ambition for Nigeria’s commitments would be in how “down low” we can get. An ambitious take-off for Nigeria would require the inclusion of some sub-national commitments in the country’s first action plan. Although Nigeria has only just joined the initiative, the reality on the ground indicates that it is not too early to aim local, because it is at these levels that the initiative will more concretely connect to the everyday lives of citizens, particularly through better service delivery.  

The state of economic and fiscal governance at the state and local levels in Nigeria is, to say the least, deplorable – and about 48 percent of all federally allocated revenues are spent at these levels. Despite two rounds of bailout funds provided to states by the federal government, several states still have difficulties paying salaries, not to mention meeting their contractual and debt obligations. Things are made worse by the characteristic opacity and absence of accountability in public sector management at that level. With Nigeria’s oil receipts dwindling amidst falling internally generated revenue, states will have to embrace tough governance reforms if they want to stay afloat. Including sub-national level commitments in the OGP Action Plan would drive home those tough governance imperatives – and Nigeria could potentially take advantage of OGP’s Sub-national Pilot Programme. It could translate to huge gains for Nigeria when all this finally gets measured in terms of the real impact on citizens.

Already, some good action has started on this front, with the pre-conditions in the States’ Fiscal Sustainability Plan between the Federal Ministry of Finance and the states agreed upon last June. State governments are already adopting certain minimum reform commitments as a condition for bailouts and budget support. Rather than miss this opportunity, it needs to be leveraged to activate some sort of sub-national take-off momentum for OGP.

Some civil society organizations, such as Policy Alert (where I work), have been focused on promoting uptake of fiscal governance reforms at the sub-national level with mixed results. We see Nigeria’s membership of the OGP as an opportunity to connect our work with something bigger; to leverage a global movement for local impact!

We cannot afford to repeat the mistake we made with the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Nigeria, where we had to wait about six years or more before any real effort was made to get the states on board. The result was that we were still lagging far behind on several of the goals and targets by the time we arrived at the goalpost year 2015.

And even if the odds were to play out against sub-national implementation at this point, we would still have to come back to it sooner or later. Governments at the state and local levels need to co-own Nigeria’s OGP implementation. Most reforms during the past two decades have focused mostly on the federal government, which led to painfully slow devolution and weak uptake by states. To date, many states have yet to see the need to enact fiscal responsibility and public procurement laws, yet those laws are already in their second generation at the centre! Similarly, Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to sub-national agencies often meet that brick wall of the (flawed) argument that the FOI Act is not operable at the state level. These obstacles have their root in the poor marketing of those reforms at the outset. Those working on Nigeria’s OGP National Action Plan can learn from this by innovatively engaging governors, speakers of state houses of assembly, local government officials, and grassroots citizens at this early stage. That way, whenever we are ready to go sub-national, if not right away, all tiers of government will be on the same page.

 

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