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Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I thank the Niger Delta Civic Engagement Forum for this opportunity to share my thoughts on the crucial development issue of citizenship participation in governance. I use this opportunity to appreciate the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) for supporting the noble idea behind this engagement forum. This event is timely considering the centrality of participatory governance to the growth of the Niger Delta region at a time like this. Truth be told, every government succeeds through a genuine consensus-building effort; and consensus is built through citizens’ participation in governance.
Citizen engagement in the political process is no doubt an essential aspect of democracy. Democratic institutions are better built and strengthened on the basis of the common experiences and ideas of the citizens who are directly impacted by these institutions. The benefit of this is evident in many developing democracies around the world. From the legislative point of view, an open legislature has been an imperative for citizens’ involvement in building our democracy. An open legislature encourages interaction with the citizens; and these interactions could serve as opportunity for citizens’ participation in the strengthening of government institutions. Our experience at the Akwa Ibom state house of assembly has so far proven this to be true. A key aspect of our regular citizen-engagement policy is public hearing. For instance, to carry the citizens along in the state budgetary planning, we decided to introduce a number of mechanisms to enhance citizen participation in the yearly appropriation process. We call this model Participatory Budgeting. We were the first to do this, four years before the national assembly adopted participatory budgeting. In engaging the citizens, were there noticeable records of achievements?  Yes, of course! By merely asking ordinary people (market women, traditional rulers, students and youths, civil liberties group, industry experts) to deliberate and make contributions to the budget of the state, we found that there were areas of needs which their inputs at the public hearings revealed. The 2017 appropriation law is an instance of such. After we listened to representatives drawn from different segments of the citizenry during the public hearing on the budget, we had to make an increase to the overall budget outlay to the tune of 8 billion Naira in capital expenditure. We augmented the social sector, especially in the areas of healthcare delivery, the sum for the construction and renovation of hospitals and health institutions which original provision was too minimal. We had to provide for more renovation of schools, provision of water boreholes especially in rural communities, desks in schools under the inter-ministerial direct labour coordinating committee to improve the free and compulsory education efforts of government. Not that government did not initially make provisions for these, but our interaction with the citizens at the public hearing made it clear that what was originally budgeted to this sector was too minimal.
The legislature is perhaps the only arm of government with well defined instruments for the constructive engagement of citizens and to promote mass participation in the democratic process. Apart from the public hearing which instance I have just given, we have another tool which we have exploited to provoke citizen engagement. It is the public petition instrument. As we treat public petitions to the house, we interact with aggrieved citizens, or get public opinions on government policy matters as the case may be. These constant interactions have been helpful to government and to the people. Between last year and this year, government has made several hundreds of payments of gratuities and refunds to workers because we gave directives at the house of assembly. The directives followed a legislative-citizens interaction which as stimulated by a public petition to the assembly’s justice, human rights, and public petitions committee. This is just how much our legislative institution has been strengthened by public participation in our lawmaking and oversight responsibility.
On the political plank, it is important that government continuously tells the people what it is doing. Government representatives at all levels must ensure to hold community and town hall meetings to carry the people along in their activities. This has proven to be a workable paradigm in many developing democracies in Asia and in Latin America.
To increase public participation also is a vibrant, objective and virile press. This will give the citizens the opportunity to assess government and make informed contributions and criticisms.
Ladies and gentlemen, truth is that there are challenges to citizenship participation which we must acknowledge. Central among them is lack of knowledge of governance. Citizens can listen to government, read of government policies and try to analyse expert opinions. But if they do not understand what exactly is happening, they would not be able to make meaningful contributions to the process. So while we advocate citizenship participation, we must consider the need to consciously keep the citizens abreast with what is happening in government. They must be informed and updated on each and every single government activities so long as these do not portend breeching national security.
What we must also consider as a challenge to citizenship participation is apathy to government. Politicians oftentimes are more concerned with voter apathy than with any other forms of citizens’ apathy. Lack of citizens’ participation in the democratic building process often arises from an existent general feeling of disinterest in what government is doing. So you call for public hearing and people do not turn out. You ask every sitting day for public petitions and you hear nothing. Yet you hear and read of numerous public outcries in the media concerning issues which would have been effectively addressed by a government institution rather than in the media. Several factors could be responsible for citizen apathy. Lack of trust and insincerity on the part of government is often key among these factors. Take for instance the continued lack of political will with regards to the cleanup of the Niger Delta Region. I read with great sadness a report of a finding by London-based Guardian newspaper that oil spill and other environmental pollution had doubled neonatal mortality rate in the region. Issues like this create agitations and apathy to government activities. A typical example of such apathy was in the 2015 election in the region. According to the civil society election situation room, the turnout of eligible voters in the entire 9 states of the region in the 2015 general elections was just under 6million votes making just about 21.3% of the entire vote count as against the 39.5% voters turn out of the region in 2011 general elections (mind you that we still had a Niger Delta son on the ballot, running for president). It is very obvious that there is a growing apathy in the region arising from years of governance disconnect, political exclusion, depreciating goodwill towards selfless and purposeful leadership to develop the region.
Let me end my address this morning by noting that one thing sits at the heart of civic engagements: government’s transparency, sincerity and the political will to promote civic engagement. You build consensus successfully if you run an open and transparent government. You encourage people to participate only in an exercise where they trust their participation would not be a mere window dressing. So to encourage citizens’ participation, government must be willing to stay open and transparent; conscious efforts must be put in place to encourage participatory governance; the people must be continuously educated on what government is doing and on what each policy action portends; the inputs of the people to government policies must be incorporated; and the press must be able to inform people objectively and be socially responsible. Only in doing this can we discourage citizen apathy, win their trust, and encourage mass participation in the building of our democratic institutions.
I thank you for having me.
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