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The woman selling garri down your street takes payment by phone – so why is Nigerian democracy still so old-fashioned?

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A woman receives money from a customer inside Mile 12 Food Market in Lagos, Nigeria. An unprecedented number of Nigerians are making the change to paying for everyday goods and services using electronic devices – using their mobile phones in particular.

Nigeria is still a very young democracy, but our democratic representatives and institutions continue to feel extremely old – and nowhere can we see this more clearly than in the recent explosion in the use of electronic payments.

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An unprecedented number of Nigerians are making the change to paying for everyday goods and services using electronic devices – using their mobile phones in particular.

According to figures from the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System, nearly ₦59 trillion worth of payments were made electronically in the first quarter of 2021. This is a rise of 88% when compared to the first quarter of 2020!

It is almost a decade since the Central Bank of Nigeria launched a cashless policy aiming to modernise the way our nation pays for goods and services, with the aim of creating a more inclusive and efficient system, which is cheaper to use, more transparent and less open to corruption.

As late as last year, observers were stating that “the glass for electronic payments in Nigeria is no longer empty, but it is still not yet full” – but that glass is now filling rapidly.

There is no reason to think that the woman selling garri down your street won’t be taking payments by mobile phone within the next couple of years – if she isn’t already.

As financial technology expert Sola Fanawopo has noticed, however, this move to electronic payments has been led by citizens – not by the government.

He has said: “At the citizens level, digitisation has increased, but at the level of the government, it is still very low, and without government, we are wasting our time”.

In terms of technology, the people of Nigerian have entered the age of the car. But our government keeps acting like horses and carts are here to stay.

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There is no doubt that Covid-19 had a huge impact on influencing the shift towards a cashless Nigeria and helping Nigerians get used to the idea of digital payments. During the Covid-19 lockdown, many of us have had no choice but to switch to digital banking when bank branches were closed. And people found it faster and simpler.

The Covid-19 pandemic also saw impressive efforts from the government to make palliative payments electronically – and saw the government take impressive and important steps to enhance the transparency and governance of Covid-related spending, including the publication of procurement plans and notices for all emergency response activities including the names of companies awarded contracts and the owners of those companies.

Not only can we not go back to outdated systems, but our politicians also need to be as transparent and as accountable as these governmental bodies.

That is the goal of the digital democracy campaign I head. Our campaign is determined to improve accountability and transparency in Nigerian politics. And this is why we created the free Rate Your Leader app.

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Rate Your Leader puts registered voters in direct person-to-person contact with their local decision-makers, making them justify every decision they make and every penny they spend and making them truly accountable to the people they serve.

And if their voters don’t like the answers they get, they can rate their politicians badly for everyone to see.

Decades of underwhelming, underperforming government has led Nigeria to where we are today. Many Nigerians do not trust their leaders. To too many, they are self-interested and self-serving. This is not true in my experience, but like it or not, many Nigerians think this way.

Digital communication can improve that situation.

In 2021, we live our lives online. We shop, socialise, learn, work and even date there. Our politics and our political institutions need to take advantage of the opportunities of the digital age to become more accessible, transparent and responsive – and to make themselves relevant to the people they serve.

But too much of our public payment, welfare and public transport infrastructure remains entirely cash-based. Cash is of course practically untraceable – making corruption a lot easier in any system that relies upon it.

Minimising the use of cash in public life could be an important step towards restoring Nigerian’s trust in the democratic process.

And maximising the use of digital communication to build bridges between electors and elected is an equally important route towards achieving the same goal.

Joel Popoola is a Nigerian technology entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and is the creator of the Rate Your Leader app. Follow him on Twitter.

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