Why Governments Should Open Up Their Data

Ani Nwachukwu Agwu January 31, 2019 0

Running 21st century governments by the “old rules” is reinforcing information asymmetry, inefficiency, inequality and ultimately poverty. In 2016, the eight richest people in the world had as much money as the bottom 50 per cent of humanity – that’s three-and-a-half billion people. And of those eight, six were infotech billionaires. The world can no longer feign indifference on the pricelessness of public data in this age. Like these infotech billionaires, governments are stewards of public data and money. Their responsibility is allocating same to priority sectors in the society for policy-making. If data is so priceless, why then is the unsustainable concentration of power and wealth (data) in the hands of few individuals and government?

A group of active citizens, prepared to engage with state authorities, in a meeting, Abuja

Technological advancement such as computer, internet and airplane has not only demystified global challenges (e.g. transportation) to the point that one could fly from New York to London in six hours or less; technology has made governance and public policy increasingly participatory and interactive. It is believed that such interaction will ultimately result in more democratization of decision-making and getting citizens more involved in the allocation of state resources for public good. Democracy requires transparent decisions; so that citizens are aware of what is decided and how much money is being spent on which purposes.

In developing economies, e.g. Nigeria, one phenomenon driving political instability and economic stagnation is corruption. Stakeholders are unanimous that the incidence of corruption is unacceptably high and that open government – opening up government data and public processes, is the antidote. The importance of data-driven transparency is indisputable in combating corruption because corruption thrives in atmospheres of opaqueness and secrecy. Incontestably, transparency counteracts corruption and sharp practices in government circles.

A fundamental concept for understanding open government is information asymmetry. Information asymmetry is a situation in which one party has more information than another, for instance, when a government has more information than its constituents. One of the reasons why governments open their data is to reduce information asymmetry, but completely overcoming this is often not realistic. Somebody who is inside the system on a daily basis will always have more knowledge than outsiders do. However, easy access and a clear presentation of information are often necessary. By that, citizens can see a clearer picture, but completely bridging the information asymmetry is virtually impossible.

The second point why we should open up government data is civic participation and engagement. Among other forms of centralized governments, one distinctive characteristic of democracy is citizens’ voice or civic participation. Citizens can never be able to properly engage their elected or public officials without data or information about what is happening inside government institutions. World over, a military dictator can always build roads; primary healthcare centres; potable water supply; etc., but at any instance, military dictators lack legitimacy because they rule by the barrel of a gun. Ruling by the barrel of a gun is a measure of primitiveness.

Article 21 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads that: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot or by equivalent free voting procedures.” Fundamentally, access to relevant public data inevitably guide electorates during elections, guaranteeing credible electoral outcomes among nations. Undoubtedly, under democracies where voices are present, human rights are best protected.

So there is relationship between open government, legitimacy of governments and trust. The importance of easy access to public data as a way of building trust is captured in open government ambitions. Commitments to open government should show that governments are not hiding anything from citizens. In the circumstance, the public can see how the government is functioning, and influence its working where necessary. For example, viewing how budget is spent and thereafter suggesting alternative ways of spending the budget better.

Challenging the status quo

No more Secrecy Act in Nigeria, it belongs to the past

For five decades (1962–2011), Nigeria operated a horrible law – Official Secret Act, which provided for the protection of official information from public interaction or scrutiny. The Act imposed restrictions upon public servants concerning disclosure of certain “privileged” information. Thus, for 50 years, Nigerian political environment was more or less a “black box” – citizens living in information blackout.

In the same year (2011) that Open Government Partnership (OGP) was launched, Nigerian government enacted a revolutionary law – Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), providing for free access of public information to citizens. The act also provides for the protection of personal privacy, protection of serving public officers from adverse consequences when they disclose certain kinds of official information without authorization. The Nigerian FOIA is considered a game-changer in the country’s long push for openness, transparency and accountability.

Global efforts at opening up government-controlled data for public participation and engagement birthed a multilateral initiative – OGP.  In September 2011, on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly meeting, Heads of State from 8 founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the United States) endorsed the Open Government Declaration. The OGP aims to secure concrete commitments from national and sub-national governments to open up government data and processes, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance among member states.

How civic organisations are disrupting service delivery using FOIA and OGP

For many years in Nigeria, corruption and cultures of opacity meant that resources meant for development were frittered away. According to a UN report, roughly $4.6bn is spent on bribes in Nigeria each year. Poor transparency and accountability have allowed corruption to flourish, but these civil society groups are trying to change the opaque environment.

Empowered by the provisions of OGP and FIOA, governments are under intense pressure to intensify fights against corruption; sharing more information about the way federal ministers or commissioners are managing public resources and increasing civil participation in public decision-making. A host of civic organisations: Follow The Money, Tracka, PPDC, SERAP etc are harnessing new technologies to strengthen governance especially at the grassroots. The activities of these above-named organisations are examples of how citizens (activists) can be part of the solution of nation building in a fragile or failing democracy. Therefore to increase civic participation, promote transparency, and strengthen accountability; governments must open up public data – hitherto administered in secrecy, for public perusal, consumption and ownership.

This article was originally published on Apolitical in December 2018.

Decades of corruption have held Nigeria back — it’s time for change

Ani Nwachukwu Agwu January 21, 2019 0

Picture credit: Flickr/Fasasi Abbas

Nigeria has had a checkered political and economic history Like many other African countries, it won its independence in 1960, and went on to install a parliamentary democracy akin to Britain’s. This era, known as the first republic, lasted from 1960 to 1966 and was marked by ethnic tensions, poor governance and corruption.

Plotters used corruption as a reason to justify military coups in 1966 and 1967, whose aftermath threw the country into a civil war. Both the coups and the war paved way for almost three decades of military rule, interrupted only briefly from 1979 to 1983 when General Olusegun Obasanjo returned the country to civilian rule. Shortly after, the 1983 coup of General Muhammadu Buhari ensured that the military stayed in control of political power until 1999, when democracy returned to Nigeria.

The years of military rule were politically and economically disastrous for Nigeria. Corruption, already swelling under the early politicians, became entrenched under military rule, and a class of anti-intellectual politicians came into being. The impression is that military era squandered every amount of fiscal responsibility left by the British colonialists at the wake of independence in 1960.

One of the widely referenced international scale on the “purity” of countries is the yearly corruption perception index (CPI) published by Transparency International. Over a 18-year record, Nigeria hasn’t performed well. From this, it would be either self-serving or narcissistic to deny the claim by the former Prime minister of United Kingdom, David Cameron that: Nigeria is fantastically corrupt. Though harsh, the evidence is consistent that Nigeria is convincingly corrupt. So, who will bell the cat?

A table, detailing Nigeria’s ratings in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Amnesty International

By the 2017 estimations of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC): after the high cost of living and unemployment, Nigerians consider corruption to be the third most important problem facing their country, well ahead of the state of the country’s infrastructure and health service. As Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala showed in her recent work, billions of dollars have gone missing under several administrations since as far back as 1978. What an iniquitous record of corruption!

Does corruption impede development?

Not only in developing nations, the extent to which corrupt practices affect markets and governments is difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless, the consequences of corrupt practices cannot be overemphasised. Corruption skews public investment away from service delivery and social amenities toward “lucrative areas” such as gigantic construction projects — dams, road construction, etc. It is an open secret that perceptions of rampant corruption contribute to public disillusionment and undermine both the legitimacy and effectiveness of governments. Corruption further degrades democratic values of accountability, justice and fairness.

The task of cleaning up the stench of corruption in Nigeria is monumental


A new report by the World Poverty Clock shows Nigeria as the capital of extreme poverty in the world. The failure to lift citizens out of poverty is an indictment on successive Nigerian governments which have mismanaged the country’s vast oil riches through incompetence and corruption. The 86.9 million Nigerians now living in extreme poverty represent nearly 50% of the entire population. In a related development, Nigeria also doubles as the country with the highest number of out-of-school children in the world — a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

It is outrageous that Nigeria, a member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the fifteenth-largest oil producer in 2016, with the world’s eleventh-largest oil reserves and the ninth-largest natural gas reserves, is one of the most difficult places to support shared prosperity.

Will Nigeria survive the corruption hurricane?

Nigeria’s natural resource wealth has not delivered the dividends of democracy because key institutions remain weak or non-existent. It is believed that kleptocratic politicians are hell-bent on exploiting institutional vacuums.

Drawing from abundance of diagnostics, for Nigeria to fight corruption successfully, concerted efforts must be made to build institutions, systems and processes that enhance transparency and make corrupt practices more difficult in the first place. It must block revenue leakages while adopting appropriate budget processes and mechanisms that permit transparency and inclusiveness. Political will must be seen and mobilized against pervasive corruption and lawlessness before the country slips permanently into irreversible coma or anarchy. The task of cleaning up the stench of corruption in Nigeria is monumental, not unlike the challenge of Hercules cleaning the Augean stables.

Due to size and economic importance, Nigeria matters, not just for West Africa or even Africa, but the world. This is why good political and economic governance is essential and why the world must lend its support to ensure that Nigeria moves onto the right development path. Domestically, Nigeria must pursue its unfinished economic reforms and, thereafter, commit to investments in critical infrastructure and human capital development. There must also be investor-friendly policies that will attract foreign direct investment, add value to primary products for export and drive economic diversification. These and many others are prerequisites for sustained growth and economic development.

To successfully overcome corruption in Nigeria and Africa at large, it requires the careful, determined, civic-minded and collective action of many members of the community.

*This article was originally published on Apolitical. Apolitical is a global network for government, helping public servants find the ideas, people and partners they need to solve the hardest challenges facing our societies.