In any democracy, citizen participation is a basic principle because governments derive their authority and power from the people. Therefore, Governments have an obligation—and not just the discretion—to respond to the needs of the People while Citizens have both the right and the responsibility to demand accountability and to ensure that government acts in their best interests. It is guaranteed by Section 14 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that;
“POWER BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE OF NIGERIA from whom government through the Constitution derives all its powers and authority… PARTICIPATION by the people in their government shall be ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” – Section 14 (2) (a) and (c) Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 –
One of the most common ways by which governments try to ensure this right of the citizens to participate is the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In Nigeria, the FOIA was passed since 2007. However, there are questions about its effectiveness in enabling people to participate in governance. When you visit the FOIA website you cannot miss the slogan “to provide unfettered access to public information”. Yes, but then again, “unfettered access” does not mean merely making information available to be obtained. Clearly, empowering the people to participate means providing UNFETTERED ACCESS to public information as opposed to making information available but limiting access as we have it today. Under the current arrangement, the FOIA requires that anyone seeking public information must request for it. What this implies is that information is available but costly to obtain – not easily accessed.
Many Countries including the United States and the United Kingdom have since realised the shortfall of the FOIA. These countries are driving innovations that promote citizens’ participation and open governance in order to reinforce the FOIA and their parliaments are helping to legitimatise the reinforcement of the FOIA. This is illustrated by this excerpt from the United States Open Government Act of 2007:
"The effective functioning of a free government like ours depends largely on the force of an informed public opinion. This calls for the widest possible understanding of the quality of government service rendered by all elective or appointed public officials or employees."
(2) the PEOPLE firmly believe that our system of government must itself be governed by a presumption of openness;
(3) the Freedom of Information Act establishes a "strong presumption in favour of disclosure" as noted by the United States Supreme Court in United States Department of State vs. Ray (502 U.S. 164 1991), a presumption that applies to all agencies governed by that Act;
(4) "DISCLOSURE, NOT SECRECY, is the dominant objective of the Act," as noted by the United States Supreme Court in Department of Air Force v. Rose (425 U.S. 352 1976);
(5) IN PRACTICE, THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT HAS NOT ALWAYS LIVED UP TO THE IDEALS OF THAT ACT; AND
(6) PARLIAMENT should regularly review THE FOIA in order to determine whether further changes and improvements are necessary to ensure that the government remains OPEN AND ACCESSIBLE TO THE PEOPLE and is always based NOT upon the "NEED TO KNOW" but upon the fundamental "RIGHT TO KNOW"
(Source: A MOTION REFERRED TO 110TH COMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND GOVERNMENT REFORM CONGRESS – 1ST SESSION S.2488 UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES DECEMBER 17, 2007) – emphasis mine.
This holds true for Nigeria. It may be correct that Information is available and the FOIA covers anyone who can follow through the bureaucracy to request and obtain it but this is not the question. The question is how accessible is public information? Not the bad news published in the dailies but valuable information that can translate to actionable intelligence. Beyond its availability, public information ought to be;
· Accessible – Without barrier, whether it is solicited or unsolicited
· Accurate – correct and not misleading
· Clear – understandable to the vast majority, especially the ordinary citizens
· Useable – available before and after the fact when citizens can still convert the information to actionable intelligence
· Up-to-date – Not outdated
There is a New Age of Governance which is driven by advancements in ICT. An age of massive people participation where the ICT has empowered the people to mobilise, define public good, determine policies, seek public good, and reform or replace institutions that do not serve public good.
The day Hosni Mubarak resigned as president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Wael Ghonim, Google’s Middle East marketing director and Egyptian activist, told CNN:
“If you truly intend to liberate a country, give them the internet”.
ICT enabled citizens’ engagement or digital citizens’ engagement has been described by some as “Liberation technology”. Diamond (2010: 79) defines a Liberation Technology as any form of information and communication technology (ICT) that can expand political, social, and Economic freedom”. This is what PETITIONA is all about.
PETITIONA (www.petitiona.org) is a Launchpad for active engagement between citizens and government of Nigeria in a way that it gives Citizens’ a stake in decisions that affect their lives. Its aim is to shift the focus from a “need to know” to the fundamental right of citizens to demand to know – “right to know”. PETITIONA enables Nigerian Citizens to demand transparency, accountability and responsiveness from public institutions while also offering a platform for public servants and elected officials the chance to respond to citizens’ demands.
“Often times, Citizens only have a chance to participate in decisions that affect their lives during elections. This happens once every four years. We believe this can change.
“PETITIONA” is a Launchpad for two-way interaction between Citizens and Public Service Providers. Through this platform, Citizens can actively participate by demanding the changes they want to see – Public Institutions can also engage with Citizens by issuing official response to such demands.
We are aware that the Nigerian Government is trying to engage with Citizens trough the Presidency Office for Digital Engagement (PODE) but Citizens Engagement is not about informing Citizens about what is about to happen or what has already happened. Rather, Citizens Engagement is a complete feedback loop which entails exchange of information between Citizens and their Government. It is two-way feedback loop (top-down and bottom-up). It is deliberately designed to strengthen responsiveness and transparency which will ultimately lead to improvements in quality of public service as well as more effective public institutions (Dayo Akin-Balogun).
PETITIONA is grounded in the relevant parts of the Nigerian Constitution (especially Section 14 (2) (a) and (c), It also agrees with the spirit and letters of the Freedom of Information Act which mainly guarantees unfettered access to public information as well as other International Compacts on Citizens Participation, Open Government, Equal Opportunity, Government Transparency, Accountability and Responsiveness and so on. Its main aim is to enable the participation of people in their government. Sign up at www.petitiona.org – Make your voice count.
Dayo Akin-Balogun is a Lawyer, Business Analyst and Founder of iSPEAK FOUNDATION (authors of petitiona)