Seun Onigbinde: Enabling A Politically Conscious Nigeria
One thing we are extremely proud of is how Nigerians are becoming a lot more involved with political processes. It is almost as if we have all had a wake up call and finally realized the power to build our nation has rested with us this entire time. A huge part of this shift has revolved around Nigerians demanding that people in political office be held more accountable for their actions and their spending. People like Seun Onigbinde have taken the demands of the people and made sure public finances are accessible to and easily understood by the public.
Seun Onigbinde is the lead partner for BudgIT – a civic organisation that works to simplify the budget and helps people track public spending via different platforms. Thanks to BudgIT, one can see the breakdown of the national budget in simplistic charts, and track contracts and projects the government has said they are working on. No more sitting around wondering what’s going on and where the money is going; we have access to all this information and more.
Seun Onigbinde speaks on the journey to BudgIT.
Well, I knew I wanted to do something different. I was a banker and worked with First Bank for 4 years. I knew I wanted to do something with the budget – simplify it and engage people. One thing was clear – I needed to step out of where I was to be able to do that. Interestingly enough, Co-Creation Hub decided to sponsor transparency and advocacy in Nigeria. Their main aim was to fix everything that is wrong with governance in Nigeria and I presented my idea about budget transparency. We pitched an idea that made the budget simpler and more accessible to people and the pitch came second in the 2011 hackathon. From then on, we just kept moving forward. Even I couldn’t have imagined I could leave my job at First Bank. My mum wasn’t pleased either initially, but she’s fine with it now.
What is the main goal of Budgit?
The highlight of BudgIT is creating awareness of the fact that we all need to understand how public finance in Nigeria works. This is especially where the budget, contracts and other documents that govern the finances of the state are concerned. Our goal is simple – put the budget in the hands of every Nigerian. Let everyone know what is in the budget for them, and be able to track public expenditure. We’ve been doing this for 4 years and have grown from 3 to 24 people. In addition to that, we have 15 offices in different states, and office in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and one in Ghana very soon. We’re definitely growing gradually.
What was the public’s initial Response to BudgIT?
The initial response, in my opinion, was amazing. BudgIT really sprung to the limelight during the #OccupyNigeria period in 2012. There was a lot of agitation during that time as people wanted to know the cost of governance and were also demanding a cut. Fuel was being sold for about N140 and the people in government were spending ridiculously. People began to demand to see the budget and that was when we got the highest traction online. Then, we had a tool online which allowed people cut the budget and apply funding to other places so that was when people actually began to realise we need more transparency. People wanted to know the sacrifices government makes on their behalf.
Four years is a long time to be in operation. How do you measure your growth?
We’ve expanded a bit since 2012 and now do beyond the budget access. We are involved in project tracking where we help local communities see what projects are in the budget for them and help them track it. In addition to that, we also do a lot engaging people with oil and gas data, infrastructure and revenue, and the NNPC monthly report. And then there are the public institutions we work with. We’ve supported Kaduna State government, the National Assembly Budget and Research office, and even the Ministry of Budget and Planning and the Ministry of Finance at some point in time. So, it’s not really about making noise or emphasizing the darkness. We don’t just preach “It’s bad”, it’s also important to shed some light in the room.
Do you ever find it difficult gaining access to all this financial data?
Well, no. The thing is this is what the government is supposed to do. Thanks to the past administration, the budget is a public document. The current administration now needs to take it a step further because if the budget is a public document, then the contracts should be public as well. The easiest way to fight corruption is through radical transparency. People that are corrupt usually worry about two things – people knowing what they are doing, and the rue of war. This is why they do a lot of work in secrecy, and want to ensure nothing can be done to them even when they get caught. Every kobo the government spends on the people should be made public. If you build a road, we should know how much it cost you to do it. Same thing if you buy a computer. It’s the people’s money at the end of the day, so we should know.
Would you say BudgIT is for people who are already politically inclined, or that it cuts across every demographic?
I would say it’s for everyone, because we have defined literacy sets. We have a strong digital communication team and social media presence. There’s always a lot of energy on the platforms we use, engaging people and conversing around public institutions. The other part of it is the grassroots. For the grassroots, we have to be more specific to them because they don’t necessarily understand all the jargon of transparency and accountability. They want to see what is actually being done. So what we do is check through the budget and let them know in details exactly what is in there. And then we advise them to call their senators and governors and put them under pressure to make sure these things happen. We make them understand that public resources aren’t infinite, so if you don’t demand your project be done the chances of it happening are very slim. So, it’s not only about those who are tech-savvy. We’re actually working on how we can use SMS for project tracking.
Do you think what you’re working on for those who aren’t necessarily online or tech-savy will be as effective as what you have now?
It’s all about defining their benefits. For those who are online, there’s a conversation for them around not only project implementation but also about transparency and accountability. The biggest infrastructure we have in this country presently is the military. So, we build conversations around questions like “what makes democracy unique?”. The answer always boils down to transparency, accountability, which is the right to feedback, and institutional improvement. What we’re working on will make it easier for people at the grassroots level, who may not be online, to keep track of the projects that are supposed to be ongoing in their community. I believe it’ll be effective because, at the end of the day, what we everyone wants is for the government to follow through on what they say they are going to do.
Would you say BudgIT has had a direct effect on how transparent the government is now?
Well, I wouldn’t say it’s just been us. There are a lot of forces at play. However, I will admit that we have moved the conversation forward. The former special adviser to the president once said he sees everybody now talks about the budget, including roadside vendors and okada men. The reality is that’s exactly as it should be. We’ve made it possible for more people to be able to have these conversations. Years before, a lot of people didn’t even know anything about the budget. Now, we’ve tried to explain the process and content, and amplified when there is inferred abuse. We dig into the budget and highlight places where there are loopholes for abuse, or padding because this is the only way to improve a democracy. The process of refining and improving until you get the best outcome because, truth be told, it’s not a perfect system, but it’s a system that is available for improvement. That is why we refer to it as one of the best political systems in the world.
What future projects can we expect?
We want to do more with the states because we’ve dwelled too long on the federal government as a whole. We also want to expand the data we’re looking at beyond public finances to look at socio-economic bill as well. We’re thinking about a tool that can give Nigerians access to seek public data in a simple, interactive way. We’re also looking to expand across West Africa.
We’re excited about everything Seun and the BudgIT team are doing to make government and political processes more relatable. He is absolutely right when he says nothing will be done if we don’t push for it. In school, we used to say Democracy is a government “for the people, of the people and by the people” and every day we take a step towards making it more than a saying.