By Joel Popoola
As the leader of a campaign to modernise democracy in Nigeria, I might be expected not to agree too much with one of our nation’s countless local monarchs – institutions many Nigerians believe to be an archaic and outdated relic of a bygone era.
But a recent interview with the Queen of Efik contained some interesting thoughts about how our democratic processes should adapt to the post-Covid world which really struck a chord with me.
In an interview with the BBC, the Queen argues that democratic bodies should continue to hold meetings remotely – even after the end of social distancing and restrictions on movement necessitated by the coronavirus crisis.
The Queen combines her role with a day job in Lagos, returning to Calabar for council meetings which have always required members to be physically present.
COVID-19 has made this requirement impossible, and meetings have been convened online for much of the past year. The queen argues that council members should be able attend meetings remotely even after the end of the current crisis.
One of the few positives of the past twelve months has been the rapid uptake of digital technology from people who used to say they “didn’t do computers”. This can be very positive for our democracy, and here are five reasons why I believe the Queen is right.
1. Remote meetings can make political bodies look more like Nigeria
Our political class is overwhelmingly made up of men over fifty, which can make it seem out of touch and irrelevant to the huge swathes of our population who are not. And I say that as a man over fifty!
A significant reason for this is that working age Nigerians and those with caring commitments – the majority of whom are women – are unable to take on the additional commitments of political office. Not requiring them to travel, take time off from work or make alternative childcare commitments every time they need to attend a meeting, when they could just as easily attend from home or work, is a simple step we can take to bring about a more representative political class.
2.Remote meetings mean that politics will not just be done, but be seen to have been done.
Many Nigerians do not see that the majority of their local leaders are motivated by public service and a love of their communities, because they do not see them at all. Making more public meetings digital makes is much easier for members of the public to attend them using their mobile phones – or at a time that suits them if these meetings are recorded and streamed.
3. Remote meetings improve transparency
Likewise, there can be no claims of shady backroom deals and stitch-ups if a recording of the political process is recorded for posterity and made available permanently. Remote meeting technology makes this process incredibly simple.
4. Remote meetings are good for recognition
Like it or not, may Nigerians simply have no idea who their local leaders are. Remote meetings make it a lot easier for electors to identify their elected representatives, and to see them in action.
5. Remote meetings enhance accountability
Many local councils have a public question time, allowing local people to put their questions directly to decision makers. But the need to take time off from work and other commitments to travel to meetings to take advantage of this system renders is practically useless for many Nigerians. Again, being able to take advantage of this system from their comfort of their home or workplace strengthens accountability.
Another interesting argument made by the Queen of Efik is that traditional kings and queens are simply closer to the people than elected representatives due to their longstanding personal networks.
This is certainly an area local politicians need to work on, and at the digital democracy campaign I lead we have set out to provide them with the technology that enables the rapid development of those networks and relationships.
We created a free smartphone app called Rate Your Leader to allow elected officials to interact directly with confirmed voters in the divisions they serve.
Rate Your Leader (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.rateyourleader.voter2 )” allows politicians and people can engage person-to-person, understanding each other’s needs and positions, communicating as peers, and collaborating as equals to make their communities better. Our abuse-proof technology ensures that conversations are always courteous and civil.
And Rate Your Leader even lets voters rate their politicians for their transparency and accessibility.
As the Queen points out, Nigerians are “very happy when people send them money online or by phone” – so why don’t we use that same technology to revitalise our democracy?
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and creator of the Rate Your Leader app. Follow Joel on Twitter @JOPopoola