OGP In Nigeria - Three Inspirations

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When I heard that an OGP team was planning a visit to Nigeria, the 70th country to join the Partnership, I volunteered to join. You see, I am slightly addicted to Nigeria. In 2006, I took part in a scenario-planning exercise with 40 Nigerians drawn from government, business, civil society and faith groups. I was hooked. In less than a year, we had produced Naija Junction, a set of four creative stories about the plausible futures that the country could face. I was tasked with writing the Orwellian ‘Shine Your Eye’ story, which was partly inspired by my first meeting with Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai, who was then Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) of Abuja.

A decade later, in October 2016, I spent a week with the OGP Support Unit team on a visit to Nigeria. Our mission was to accompany Nigeria’s civil society and government pioneers as they started co-creating the country’s first National Action Plan since it formally joined OGP in July 2016. During our stay in Kaduna and Abuja, I was inspired by three moments:

First, the work of the tenacious Open Alliance of civil society organisations. A coalition of civil society leaders working in open contracting (PPDC), fiscal transparency and open data (BudgIT), and access to information (Media Rights Agenda) worked hard to make Nigeria eligible for the OGP. They created the Open Alliance and pushed hard, fighting against widespread skepticism that Nigeria’s governments could become more open, responsive and collaborative.

Only a few years ago, Nigeria was deemed ineligible for OGP by a single point, due to its public asset disclosure framework. Following a review by the OGP of eligibility criteria in 2014, in which the scoring of the asset disclosure metric was revised and made straightforward, Nigeria became eligible in late 2014. The 2015 election campaign followed soon thereafter, overshadowing the OGP agenda.

Once Muhammadu Buhari’s new administration took office, the Open Alliance, in  partnership with a few reformist public officials at the Bureau for Public Service Reform and the Federal Ministry of Justice, refreshed their efforts. These contributed to the anti-corruption commitments announced by President Buhari in May in London, and Nigeria’s formal joining of OGP in July 2016.

Second, Kaduna’s ‘Eyes and Ears’ initiative. On Sunday, October 23rd, Nasir Ahmed El-Rufai, executive governor of Kaduna State, invited us for an extensive discussion about open government in his Sir Kashim Ibrahim House offices.

He regaled us with a tale of how, in his early days as Governor, some of his aides would simply cover up his handwriting and signature in the instructions he wrote on official memoranda, and then convey his instructions in their own words. “It is for your own protection, sir,” they told him. “If everyone sees your handwriting and signature, they will forge it!”

He quickly changed the process and made sure his instructions were transmitted in his own writing, unfiltered, unadulterated and with sufficient copies to all concerned. It struck me as a simple, but powerful act of opening up Kaduna’s government.

Then he shared a rather more technical, but no less transparent way of monitoring the performance of his government. The ‘Eyes and Ears’ project allows everyone in the state to not only check, but report on the progress of government projects through a simple, phone-based platform. He showed us a screen in his office from where he could see the most recent status of every government project - from abandoned to ongoing to completed. In a recent budget speech to the Kaduna State Assembly, Governor El-Rufai said:

“We are also using this to develop a database of credible contractors and a blacklist of the bad ones. We are using this platform to invite all residents of the state to be our eyes and our ears, to be vigilant in ensuring that what is promised is delivered, that what is appropriated is executed, and that quality and timelines are respected in project delivery.”

I was not surprised that Kaduna is considered one of Nigeria’s trailblazers in opening up government and becoming more accountable to its citizens.

Third, the journey from deflation to elation via the starlings murmur. And then there were the starlings. At the official opening of the OGP workshop, a small miscommunication on the order of speakers had  OGP CEO Sanjay Pradhan, speak before the Minister of Justice and the Deputy Governor of Kaduna. Realizing this, Sanjay stopped his presentation about the OGP opportunity for Nigeria mid-stream and yielded to the senior government leaders. The session ended before Sanjay could deliver his main points. I could not help but detect a hint of deflation in his otherwise unflappable manner.

As fate would have it, that was not the right time for his piece de resistance. That opportunity came in the middle of the second day of hard work, which saw a large group of CSO and government participants wrestle with what open government really means for Nigeria. I watched as it dawned on everyone that crafting ambitious, transformational and achievable commitments to make Nigeria’s government more open, responsive and accountable was not at all easy.

Sanjay sensed this too. So he chose the perfect moment - when the energy in the room was sagging just before lunch on Tuesday afternoon - to deliver the final part of the presentation that was truncated the previous day.

He told the story of a small bird, the vulnerable starling, which daily faced the very real prospect of falling prey to the swift, mighty falcon. The analogy of the starling to an ordinary citizen or a courageous reformer in government, and that of the falcon to a predatory corrupt official, was immediately apparent to everyone in the attentive hall.

Alone, the starling stands no chance of escaping the falcon. But when joined by hundreds of thousands of other starlings, and by performing a beautiful bird ballet, an aerial murmuration choreographed by no-one, the starlings weave, swoop and shimmer to confuse and ultimately send the falcon fleeing.

Nature can be disarmingly beautiful. But that was the first time I witnessed that beauty used so effectively to inspire a room full of slightly frustrated activists and officials. Did it work? There was hardly a dry eye in the room by the time Sanjay finished.

And I look forward to reading, in Nigeria’s first National Action Plan, how the tiny starlings will influence the way in which Africa’s giant nation transforms its government.

Authors: Aidan Eyakuze
Filed Under: OGP News