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Great British graft makes its leaders seem even more crooked than ours!

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Former British Prime Minister David Cameron and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson in happier times. The two have in recent times become engulfed in a series of sleaze scandals. Photo: Will Oliver/AFP.

A prime minister’s text messages appearing to show him agree to “fix” the tax system to help a billionaire businessman.A prime minister is accused of asking wealthy political donors to refurbish his house – leading the government watchdog to publicly state there are “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

A former prime minister accused of lobbying the current finance minister to use public money to prop up a failing company he owned shares in – shares it is claimed stood to make him $60m.

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These are the sorts of allegations of graft we are painfully used to in Nigeria.

And if it was happening in Nigeria, I’m sure we would have already heard the British prime minister condemning our nation in the strongest possible terms.

But these are happening not in Nigeria – recently referred to by the World Bank as “at risk of unravelling” and the Financial Times as “a failed state” – but in Great Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suddenly become engulfed in a series of sleaze scandals.

The prime minister has at least managed to appoint a new ethics advisor – five months after the last one quit after Johnson ignored a report ruling that a member of his cabinet had broken the code governing ministers’ conduct with “behaviour that can be described as bullying”.

For a country like ours – ranked 149th in the World for corruption – it is at least refreshing for the international embarrassment to not be our own.

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But the question is, what can Nigeria learn from this – and how can we be better?

A common factor in all of the current British sleaze scandals is secretive electronic communications.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron sent text messages to Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and other government ministers asking for help with his business dealings. Electronics manufacturer James Dyson texted Boris Johnson to ask him to “fix” a tax issue.

As one opposition politician stated:

“Frankly it stinks that a billionaire businessman can text the prime minister and get an immediate response and, apparently, an immediate change in policy.”

It is precisely the clandestine nature of these communications which makes them so problematic.

Of course, our public life depends on people being able to make the case for policy changes to decision-makers, especially if that policy affects them or the national interest.

If either Dyson or Cameron had used their profile or resources to campaign publicly for the same changes by arguing that they were in the national interest, there would have been no complaints. They could have done so easily and transparently.

But they chose to do so in a way that most of us organise our weekend plans, giving the impression that an elite of privileged individuals can change national policy to suit their ends with a simple text message.

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At the digital democracy campaign I lead, we’re trying to give ordinary people the same power.

We have created Rate Your Leader, a free smartphone app that connects people directly to the politicians who serve them.

Rate Your Leader lets verified voters communicate directly, one on one, with local decision-makers, and lets elected representatives know what matters most to the people who elect them and build relationships of trust with the electorate.

Ultimately, their relationship with the people they serve is more important to relate to any politician – not text messages from wealthy individuals. And Rate Your Leader helps build that relationship.

To build trust in our elected representatives and our political institutions all government business has to take place out in the open – and that includes electronic communications wherever possible. Rate Your Leader seeks to achieve this by allowing voters to rate their local leaders for accessibility and transparency.

As I write this, Boris Johnson has announced that he will judge whether or not he broke rules by allegedly asking wealthy donors to refurbish his residence.

When he was Prime Minister, David Cameron used to say that sunlight was the best disinfectant.

Nigerian politicians need to learn from his words, if not, it seems, his actions.

 

Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and creator of the free Rate Your Leader app. He can be reached on Twitter via @JOPopoola

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