Nigerians enraged as senate celebrates launch of suggestion boxes

In Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, any new item is launched; from new houses to new furniture, including suggestion boxes.

At a time when the world is going digital and the best recorded engagement between elected officials and citizens in recent times have been online, Nigeria’s Senate has launched what it called the  suggestion boxes. Ironically, millions of the first people to know about the boxes did so online and one of the Senate’s major channels of letting people know about the suggestion boxes was twitter.

In a survey of users aged 18 to 34 by Twitter ahead of UK’s last election, 45 percent said they had become interested in or joined a political or social cause that they learned about through the site, and 37 percent said they used the site to actively look for information about politics or the UK general election. Of the users surveyed, 74 percent expressed plans to vote in the May 7, 2015 election. Social media also played a huge role in Nigeria’s last elections, shaping discussions and perceptions while ensuring election results were made public early enough to make rigging difficult. Some elected officials in Nigeria, including the Senate President Dr Bukola Saraki had since used social media, mostly twitter, to engage citizens but he wants to open more channels.

Dr Saraki said the boxes were launched as a way of “saying that we are ready to hear and listen to all Nigerians of goodwill.”

“With the Suggestion Box […], we are saying we are interested in your opinion irrespective of your background, political orientation, social status, gender, religious or ethnic orientation. Be sure that this, your suggestions, opinions and ideas will not go unnoticed. The media is an important source of our feedback but hearing from you directly is for us much more enriching and unadulterated,” said Saraki.

Some Nigerians whom the Senate wants to hear from through the suggestion boxes are not impressed. Several comments have been critical of the new launch. While some wonder why there should be a formal launch for suggestion boxes at a time when Nigeria has other pressing issues, others expressed regret that the Nigerian Senate would not focus on improving its engagement with Nigerians over its social media channels rather than making the arrival of the age-long suggestion box a ceremony.

Governments all over Africa are increasingly using social media to engage with citizens and share information more than ever before.

Commenting on the launch of the suggestion boxes, Social commentator and Journalist Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu said there was nothing wrong in having suggestion boxes in addition to other engagement channels, although he wondered why there should be a ceremony.

“What governments need to do is to ensure the engagement tools they decide to use are accessible to all citizens,” Mr Obiukwu said.

With the number of mobile internet users in Nigeria now more than 97 million, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), education on engagement will work a great deal to ensure citizens can reach their representatives in government. The suggestion boxes will work too, in areas without internet connection. But Nigeria’s Senate President did not say whether boxes will be placed at accessible points around the country.

Earlier in the month, the office of the Senate President partnered with Facebook to train senators and their aides on how to use the social media network, in line with the promise of the President of the Senate to ensure more representative legislature using e-parliamentary tools. However, the training was voluntary. The suggestion boxes could be for the lawmakers who are yet to realize the power of social media as a great tool of engagement.