BudgIT: Using data journalism to simplify Boko Haram, budget in Nigeria

Boko Haram

When President Muhammadu Buhari on November 18 ordered the arrest of Nigeria‘s immediate past National Security Adviser, Colonel Sambo Dasuki (rtd), one major reason was given. Mr. Dasuki and several others had been indicted by a presidential panel of mismanaging billions of dollars; money meant to procure arms for the Nigerian military in their bid to defeat the Boko Haram terror group.

The presidential statement announcing the arrest order mentioned many mismanaged sums for different deals, so much so that the Nigerian media had difficulty explaining the details.

Nigeria’s most widely read newspaper, Punch, titled its story ‘Dasuki awarded N333bn fake arms contracts’ but stated in the story that “Among other weighty allegations by the committee, the ex-NSA awarded failed contracts totalling N482bn”.

Also, Nigeria’s most widely read online newspaper, PREMIUM TIMES, which titled its story “Buhari orders arrest of ex-NSA Dasuki, others indicted in arms contract report” narrated the various sums as stated by the presidency. It would probably take several hours for any interested reader to piece together specific details of the various amounts involved in the deals talk less of understanding them.

BudgIT to the rescue

However, one website readers would expect to simplify this controversial figures is BudgIT; and it did not disappoint. Using well labelled and simple infographics, the website broke down the details of the N3.8 trillion (about $19 billion) allegedly expended on arms procurement between 2007 and 2015, including the mismanaged sums.

This was not the first time BudgIT would be breaking down such complex figures. In September, after the Nigerian Federal Government announced it was approving ‘bailout package’ to rescue many of Nigeria’s 36 states from bankruptcy and inability to pay workers’ salaries, various sums of money was also involved. Again, using infographics, BudgIT simplified the bailout package in a way the average Nigerian would easily understand.

The same pattern of simplifying complex government data by the innovative website has been on for three years. Created in 2011 (although it began operation in 2012), BudgIT describes its primary aim as “simplifying the Nigerian budget”. Using infographics and other simple to read data visualisation tools, the owners say they believe “it is the RIGHT of every citizen to have access and also understand public budgets.”

Apart from helping the citizens understand the budget in simple terms, the Nigerian innovative website also monitors government expenditure in different areas and says it believes “budgets must be efficiently implemented for the GOOD of the people.”

By simplifying government budgets, lawmakers’ spending, and expenditure by various Nigerian states and agencies, the owners hope to empower Nigerians with the tools needed to make their government accountable to them. And in a country rated one of the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International, despite being Africa’s largest economy and one of the world’s highest producers of crude oil, such a platform can only be described as essential.

The challenge

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Interim Report on Investigative Committee on Arms Procurement

One would expect Nigerians to embrace such a platform, which is unique in the West African country, and make it one of the most visited websites. Regular access to the internet, which was exclusive to elites about a decade ago has spread across Nigeria, largely due to the growth of mobile telephones. Official figures indicate that over 90 million Nigerians now have access to the internet with Facebook saying in June that 15 million Nigerians have facebook accounts.

However, despite the growth of the internet and the deepening of democracy in the country, which witnessed decades of military dictatorship after its independence from Britain in 1960, websites like BudgIT are yet to be the toast of Nigerians. BudgIT is not even among the 3,000 most visited websites in Nigeria. While several reasons such as lack of awareness of the service among Nigerians, lack of interest in political issues among Nigerians etc, can be adduced for this, Seun Onigbinde, the co-founder of the organisation explains what their main challenge is.

“Funding is a big challenge. We need support so as to sustain and publicise our efforts,” he says.

Not just online

Funding is not BudgIT’s only challenge. Despite the millions of Nigerians who are online, over a third of the 170 million population still do not have access to the internet. To ensure this category of people are not denied the opportunity to understand their government’s finances, BudgIT also does a lot of offline activities in various communities.

“We sustain the conversation offline,” Seun says, “We pull out the projects based on their location and try as much as possible to explain to the residents of those areas what projects they should have gotten and to know from them if those projects exist.”

One of such actions by BudgIT to reach out to more grassroots communities is OpenKaduna.com.ng where BudgIT in partnership with the Kaduna State Government in Northern Nigeria tries to break down the state’s budget to citizens including in the most widely spoken Hausa language.

We remain committed

Seun says despite their challenges, he and his two-dozen colleagues will continue online and offline activities to ensure they take the Nigerian budget “beyond a news item to a focal point of debate among Nigerians.”

One sector one would expect BudgIT to get maximum cooperation for its activities is the Nigerian media. This, however is not the case.

“They do not treat us as partners,” the Electrical/Electronics engineering graduate said.

However, the reportage of the Sambo Dasuki corruption scandal shows why more traditional Nigerian media, who may lack the necessary skills that Seun and his colleagues have, need to partner with groups like BudgIT.

As the corruption trial of the ex-NSA proceeds in court, and while the Boko Haram carnage in Northern Nigeria continues, Nigerian media have a lot to learn from BudgIT on how to simplify to Nigerians why corruption lies at the heart of Boko Haram insurgency and other problems faced by the ‘Giant of Africa’.

The article was first published on NewsNext and republished here on the author’s permission.


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