My recent blog for IRI. In the lead up to the Nigeria election on February 14, 2015, IRI is running a Nigeria Election Series on their blog, Democracy Speaks. You can check it out at http://www.democracyspeaks.org/.
By Sentell F. Barnes, resident program officer, Nigeria
Follow me on Twitter @sentellbarnes
Prior to joining the International Republican Institute (IRI) and shipping out to the African continent, I worked for three American politicians. Each one had developed an intensive and effective method for reaching constituents. When I arrived in Nigeria, I was completely shocked by the number of politicians who lacked structures for handling the numerous constituent requests that are often directed at their offices. I learned very early in my professional career the importance of constituent service. If I wanted to keep my job as an assistant, then I had to make sure that my elected official was on top of the mountain of letters, emails and phone calls that flooded into the office.
Last month, I was visiting Minna, the capital of Niger State, just a few hours’ drive from Abuja. We were in Minna to conduct a series of meetings and workshops regarding the Score Niger State Good Governance program that is supported by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The program is designed to develop the capacity of Niger state’s political parties and civil society by allowing constituents to evaluate the performance of their elected officials using a web and SMS based digital score card. The objective is to promote more effective, representative, and accountable governance by assisting state and local elected officials to understand the constituents’ needs and expectations and improve their responsiveness to constituents’ feedback.
Meeting with Governor of Niger State, Mu’aza Babangida Aliyu
One of the meetings that had been organized was with the Governor of Niger State. Well, it wasn’t exactly a meeting but more like a town hall that allowed IRI and other groups to address the governor. I have had the opportunity to meet governors in Nigeria before but what impressed me about Governor Mu’aza Babangida Aliyu was his willingness to not only interact with the citizens of Niger State but allow citizens to address complaints about government programs. One in particular was brought to his attention by a teenager who was thanking the governor for his support of their sport teams. She said that her coach and parents were still waiting for the money that his administration promised her school. The governor then asked his assistant who was sitting next to him to address this issue and explain why the school had not received the funds. After about 15 minutes of back and forth between the assistant and the coach a solution was proposed and the governor promised follow up on this issue. I was impressed with his willingness to not only take questions but to address concerns on the spot. It is not often that you see that in Nigeria or in other parts of the world.
The Governor stated during the townhall the importance of quality democratic governance and declared that all political office holders including political appointees should be rated by the public on their performance. The governor also noted during the meeting the importance for elected officials to pay attention to the constituents, who made it possible for them to occupy their political offices. According to the governor, projects that aim to strengthen democracy can only succeed with participation by citizens.
The IRI team with Governor Mu’aza Babangida Aliyu after the town hall.
The stakes are high in the coming election. For the first time since Nigeria’s return to democracy, Nigerians have a choice between two strong candidates among the 13 men and one woman running for the office. Each candidates and their political party has had to canvas for votes throughout the country. Four years ago when General Muhammadu Buhari was the candidate of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), he lacked the structures and political network to canvas for votes in all geographic zones in Nigeria. Today, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has the ability to put poll agents at every polling unit in the country creating a tense and competitive process. At the state level, governors throughout the federation have been creating new programs and replicating successful programs of their fellow governors to address the needs of citizens and potential voters in hopes to winning their votes in the coming election. Citizens are slowly filling their roles as the kingmakers of democracy, supporting politicians that are meeting the basic needs of the voter and kicking out of office those they feel are not fulfilling their role as an elected