Nigeria: Media, Civil Society Must Call Govt to Account

Image: Flickr, Mad African!:(Broken Sword)
Image: Flickr, Mad African!:(Broken Sword)

For the vast majority of Nigeria's population of more than 140 million, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) country review report for Nigeria published this week will have significance only if the media and civil society respond strongly to its findings, and if it is able to trigger substantial reforms.

The report was first discussed in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in June 2008, where President Umar Yar’Adua became the eighth head of state to discuss his country’s APRM report with his peers. But the discussion was cut short as a result of pressure of time. The discussion was resumed at a special APRM forum meeting in Cotonou, Benin in October 2008.

At these two meetings, the report – which details Nigeria’s key governance challenges and outlines a programme of action to address the problems identified – was presented to a closed forum of African heads of state for discussion. To comply with APRM guidelines, it should have been made available to the public about six months later. But more than a year after it was discussed in Cotonou, it has only recently been printed and was posted to the APRM website this week.

By and large, the report reveals familiar information about the country’s most pressing problems. A key thread running through it is that Nigeria should effectively harness and manage its generous endowment of resources, including both its abundant natural resources and its vast human talent and ingenuity.

The report also reminds its readers of Nigeria’s complex, challenging context of diverse ethnic identities, religious affiliations and economic and other disparities, and of the tensions and conflicts among its states and regions. Its role as a stabilising West African state that plays a vital role in “promoting the peaceful settlement of disputes in the Economic Community of West African States” is also highlighted.

Impressively, the report offers frank criticism of the country’s failure to transfer some of the immense power concentrated in its central government to its federal states, while it also candidly discusses well-known challenges, such as rampant corruption, political patronage and a grossly-underpaid and poorly-trained civil service whose inefficiency is legendary. Constitutional reform is earmarked as urgent, as is addressing the crisis of the oil-rich Niger Delta and redefining the role of traditional leaders.

The report underscores Nigeria’s status as a major world oil producer, with 36.2 billion barrels of oil reserves and with new discoveries expected to boost them to 40 billion barrels. The report acknowledges some notable achievements, including steady economic growth and success in lowering inflation rates from 18 percent in 2005 to 8.2 percent early this year.

Although most of the information in the report is available from other sources and its analysis is more than a year old, its value lies in its collation of disparate strands on governance trends into a single volume.

More importantly, a critical lesson from previously-reviewed countries is that sustained pressure from civil society and the media is critical if the peer review process is to bear fruit. The APRM reviews for Kenya and South Africa respectively stressed the need to address simmering ethnic tensions and the threat of xenophobic violence, but went unheeded. The subsequent ethnically-rooted post-election violence in Kenya and xenophobic attacks in South Africa highlighted the potential of the APRM as an early warning mechanism in a society.

The public release of the Nigerian report gives the media an opportunity to play a stronger watchdog function. (In Ghana, the media has sustained its coverage of the implementation of the peer review process five years after the first peer review.)

Moreover, the report could be a powerful tool if used by civil society, political parties and parliament to energise national debate on key issues. It presents a crucial opportunity for Nigerians to hold their government to account for the implementation of its recommendations.

18 Dec 2009
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