Nigeria’s Information Age

In a country where access to government data was once the exclusive preserve of a connected few, the tides have started to change. In recent years, new government policies and agitations by civil society groups have expanded the range of data available to the public. The issue right now is whether Nigerians are willing and ready to use the available tools to hold their government accountable.

The build-up to this year’s General Elections saw the rise of several civil organisations focused on defending citizens’ rights and enlarging the discourse on government accountability. A new breed of enlightened Nigerians who were tired of the old order and wanted to see positive change in Nigeria extensively used the internet to disseminate information. The amount of information at the public’s disposal grew as individuals and organisations accessed relevant government data and made such data available online.

These groups’ efforts were aided by the passage of a new law—the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. After years of stalling by both chambers of the National Assembly, the Act was finally assented by then President Jonathan. In theory, the Act enables Nigerians to request for relevant information from government agencies (subject to certain pro-security limitations), and such agencies are obliged to respond to these requests.

Since the effectuation of the FOI Act, several individuals and organisations have used it to request data from certain “shadowy” agencies. Some have had their requests granted, while some others have had theirs rejected or even ignored. There are pending judicial cases where requesters are challenging the refusal of certain agencies to accede their requests.

Regardless of the murky waters around the FOI Acts, one thing is clear—Nigerians now have more data at their disposal. BudgIT is one of the organisations helping to foster this information availability. The organisation tries to form partnerships with governments at all levels in order to make data such as budgets and expenditures easily accessible to Nigerians. Recently, BudgIT’s efforts demonstrated the discrepancy between federal expenditure figures publicly quoted by a governor and the figures available in the government’s records. The FOI Act aided this effort.

Despite the growth in publicly available data, an examination of internet forums, online posts and traditional offline discourses shows that many Nigerians have not yet availed themselves of the available information. Discussions still border on the subjective, even when objective data is available. This allows many Nigerians to make spurious claims without any backing. It is either they do not know that such data is available, or they are unwilling to use it.

Recently, I accessed the proposed 2016 federal budget and the latest version of the proposed Petroleum Industry Bill via BudgIT’s website. I then shared the download links to members of a certain chat group. Surprisingly, a group member asked if the data was not classified. He felt BudgIT might have accessed it illegally. I had to explain that the data was legally available to the public.

This “fear of illegality” may be restraining some Nigerians from enlightening information. When a scared person thinks that a certain document is classified, the odds are that such a person would not want to access it for fear of prosecution. Hence, a considerable number of Nigerians continue to hide behind a veil instead of equipping themselves with relevant data.

Plain unwillingness is another factor keeping many Nigerians from utilizing the available informational tools. Some Nigerians distrust anything said by the government, and so, suspect documents made available by the government of being “cooked”. Some others are unwilling because they prefer to hide from the truth. To them, it is better to talk without recourse to any public records, than to first digest a document before making claims. This is a sad case of intellectual laziness. Sadly, it affects many Nigerians, even some whose level of education is supposed to have made them intellectually active.

Every day, more government data is being put on display for Nigerians. While some are ready to digest this data, the challenge is to achieve greater “information inclusion”. It is when a large segment of the citizenry is well informed that we can really hold our governments accountable. The degrading quote: “hide something in a book to keep it from Africans”, will continue to hold true until we can show a drive for knowledge, for accuracy, and for accountable governance.

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