Can Open Data Keep Politicians In Africa Accountable?

We ran a quick Twitter poll on the iAfrikan account a day before the 2016 Presidential elections asking our followers if they think open gaovernment data can help in keeping governments and policticians accountable.

The poll results were inconclusive.

InfoGraph of Poll Results February 2016, iAfrikan Twitter Poll Results

Not only were those agreeing and those not quite close but interesting to note is the percentage of those who considered the answer "What if the data is rigged?"

Furthermore, one of our followers (Steve Song) voiced their opinion stating that Open Government Data can't help keep politicians accountable, he elaborated further in his tweet.

Given how President Museveni of Uganda won the elections despite electoral commission showing evidence of not only ghost voters, but ghost polling stations and suggested voters register data manipulation.

What does all this mean for the continent where so many Open Data initiatives in the governance sector are underway?

Current Projects

Open Data for government records is not foreign to Africa, there are various open government initiatives across the continent with some having the purpose of informing citizens with the hope of keeping politicians in power accountable.

In South Africa for example, you have People's Assembly.

People's Assembly Public Data on Member of Parliament as per People's Assembly Data

A website, which in its own words, "aims to promote accountability and bridge the gap between ordinary people and their elected representatives. It seeks to promote a greater public voice and enhance public participation in politics by providing information about our elected representatives and the institutions they serve, and even allow you, the citizen, to provide feedback."

Despite the wealth of public representatives data that Peoples Assembly shares on its website, it seems it is not that well known of among people who really need to know what their political representatives are up to, the voting public.

Despite pre-election data from the Electoral Commission raising questions of flawed elections, Yuweri Museveni has gone on to extend his thirty year streak as Uganda's president. Tweet

In Kenya, you then have Mzalendo, which can summarized as an online platform looking to "keep an eye on Kenya's parliament and public representatives".

Mzalendo Public Data on Senator as per Mzalendo Data

How Mzalendo does this is by distilling and providing the relevant information about Kenya's National Assembly and Senate to the public.

There's also projects such as Budgit in Nigeria which aims to simplify the Nigerian budget for the Nigerian public and tries to influence public budgets being used for the good of the people.

2016 Budget Breakdown Nigeria's 2016 Budget Breakdown | BudgIT

Yet, despite all of Budgit's efforts, the 2016 Nigerian budget is alleged to have been "padded" by corrupt officials so they can siphon some of the budget for their own benefit.

In all these examples, corruption by public officials hasn't dropped despite details of the corrupt practices being public and despite government related data being in the open.

Why is this the case?

Surely the more we know (with evidence) public officials are "robbing us", the more likely we are to hold them accountable?

Fear & Apathy

Speaking to several people, many reasons are stated as to why corruption by public officials ensues despite government data and data about public officials being "open".

But the two most prevalent reasons are fear and apathy.

This is highlighted by Abdelhadi Khiati from Oran in Algeria, who quips

"the president here has edited the constitution to allow himself for more terms and he is literally unable to move a keyboard, and beside everyone knowing that in the country, nobody moves a finger and if he does, he will end up badly, so most of the times people know what is going on, yet they choose to do nothing because of fear, so open data, open government, open won't help really,"

Abdlhadi further adds that the only way (he sees) forward is to educate people.

He raises a point which touches on people's apathy towards public officials and corruption by emphasizing that he has observed that "people don't care,".

This perhaps sheds light on why so many corrupt public officials still hold office or are "re-deployed" with impunity.

Then there's also the case of whistle blowers, especially in Africa, being afraid of taking action or sharing further information to strengthen cases against corrupt public officials for fear of violence against themselves or their family members.

But these aren't the only concerns around open government data.

What If The Data Is Rigged?

Given how events unraveled regarding the 2016 Presidential elections in Uganda, the ghost voters, the manipulation of polling station data and other data related irregularities, it is a fair point to be concerned about (open) government data being manipulated before being made public.

The question then becomes what other data can government manipulate?

Inflated budgets (to justify "spending")?

This particular issue is likely one not to be solved by technology but by a strong and independent judicial system in each country.

Hope

So far I have painted a picture of doom with regards to open (government) data 's ability to assist in holding public officials accountable, but there is a caveat.

Without Uganda's Electoral Commission data being public and open, the people of Uganda would have been none the wiser. Elections would have proceeded as always, results announced, and everyone would murmur in their own small corners without any proof. But with proof, i.e. data, people can build a case, a wave of sorts, a movement that slowly can build up towards action being taken against corrupt public officials.

Chatter on social media and public gathering places alone won't do it, but open government data accompanied by an independent and strong judicial system will go a long way to helping keep politicians in Africa accountable.

Until then, remember, T.i.A!

Cover Image, President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni

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