The third edition of the Niger Delta Civic Engagement Forum (NDCEF) was yesterday held in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital.
The event which took place at Emerald Event Centre, 4 lanes, had as its theme “Strengthening Niger Delta Institutions Through Citizen Participation. ” The event was attended mostly by the youths of the Niger Delta region.
Declaring the event open, the Chief of Party, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Mr Charles Abani said the event was aimed at bringing together key stakeholders in the Niger Delta to identify, strategize and propose solutions in addressing the challenges around strengthening the capacity of Niger Delta government institutions to meet citizen needs and participation in governance.
Abani said the 2017 NDCEF was also targeted at addressing the role of strong and accountable government institutions and effective citizen participation in governance and development in the region, imperatives for economic transformation and inclusive development in Niger Delta, drives for citizen’s participation and social inclusion in Niger Delta and the role of elected officers in increasing citizen’s participation.
He noted that the outcome of the event will be fed into dialogue with key decision makers, adding that the objective of the forum will at the end provide a space for government institutions, civil society and key stakeholders in the Niger Delta to discuss critical governance challenges and proffer ways for improved local level development in the region.
Other objectives, Abani maintained was to create a forum for positive interaction, exchange and dialogue as well as promote specific Niger Delta engagement by CSOs, government and other stakeholders for increased partnership, provide space for discourse on ideas for institutional innovations that promote increased accountability to government as well as build wider awareness and engagement within the Niger Delta.
The Executive Director of Foundation Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND), Mr Dara Akara, in his speech commended the organisers of the event. He said that expected outcomes of the event should be able to reinforce the importance of citizen engagement in addressing development and governance challenges in the Niger Delta, networking promoted to improve collaborative efforts towards effective solutions and strong institutions.
Other expectations are public awareness and engagement increased on citizens participation in government, priority demands and actions for government, citizens and Niger Delta institutions, articulated and presented in a collaborative manner for action, and Commitment that demonstrate partnerships between government and the citizens to address meaningful engagement of all citizens achieved.
Presenting a paper on Political/Legislative Imperative for Increasing Citizen Participation, the Speaker of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Barr Onofiok Luke the event was timely considering the centrality of participatory governance to the growth of the Niger Delta region at a time like this,adding that government succeeds through a genuine consensus-building effort; and consensus is built through citizens’ participation in governance.
Luke noted that the legislature is perhaps the only arm of government with well defined instruments for the constructive engagement of citizens and to promote mass participation in the democratic process.
“Apart from the public hearing which instance I have just given, we have another tool which we have exploited to provoke citizen engagement. It is the public petition instrument. As we treat public petitions to the house, we interact with aggrieved citizens, or get public opinions on government policy matters as the case may be. These constant interactions have been helpful to government and to the people. Between last year and this year, government has made several hundreds of payments of gratuities and refunds to workers because we gave directives at the house of assembly.”
“The directives followed a legislative-citizens interaction which as stimulated by a public petition to the assembly’s justice, human rights, and public petitions committee. This is just how much our legislative institution has been strengthened by public participation in our lawmaking and oversight responsibility. Citizen engagement in the political process is no doubt an essential aspect of democracy. Democratic institutions are better built and strengthened on the basis of the common experiences and ideas of the citizens who are directly impacted by these institutions. The benefit of this is evident in many developing democracies around the world. From the legislative point of view, an open legislature has been an imperative for citizens’ involvement in building our democracy.” He noted.
Continuing, the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly Speaker said, an open legislature encourages interaction with the citizens; and these interactions could serve as opportunity for citizens’ participation in the strengthening of government institutions, stressing that his experience at the Akwa Ibom state house of assembly has so far proven this to be true. A key aspect of our regular citizen-engagement policy is public hearing.
“For instance, to carry the citizens along in the state budgetary planning, we decided to introduce a number of mechanisms to enhance citizen participation in the yearly appropriation process. We call this model Participatory Budgeting. We were the first to do this, four years before the national assembly adopted participatory budgeting. In engaging the citizens, were there noticeable records of achievements? Yes, of course! By merely asking ordinary people (market women, traditional rulers, students and youths, civil liberties group, industry experts) to deliberate and make contributions to the budget of the state, we found that there were areas of needs which their inputs at the public hearings revealed.”
On the political plank, Luke maintained that it is important that government continuously tells the people what it is doing, which he said government representatives at all levels must ensure to hold community and town hall meetings to carry the people along in their activities.
The AKHA speaker said that one thing sits at the heart of civic engagements: government’s transparency, sincerity and the political will to promote civic engagement. “You build consensus successfully if you run an open and transparent government.
You encourage people to participate only in an exercise where they trust their participation would not be a mere window dressing. So to encourage citizens’ participation, government must be willing to stay open and transparent; conscious efforts must be put in place to encourage participatory governance; the people must be continuously educated on what government is doing and on what each policy action portends; the inputs of the people to government policies must be incorporated; and the press must be able to inform people objectively and be socially responsible.”
Other speakers at the event include: Mr Charles Oputa, who spoke on the topic “Role of Civil Society in Advocating for Reforms in the Niger Delta”, Hilda Dokuba-“Providing the Space for Women and Youth Engagement in Governance”, Ken Henshaw – “Inclusive Citizens Participation in Project Design and Implementation”, Dr Uduak Okon – “Inclusive Citizen Participation in Niger Delta, among others.
The event featured interactive session between the audience and the panelists. The youths of the region benefited a lot from the event especially by acquiring knowledge on how to contribute in developing the Niger Delta.
BY EMMANUEL AKPAN