2023 election: How dearth of data threatens fact-checking, exposes citizens to political misinformation in NigeriaBy Nurudeen Akewushola on February 4, 2023
ON August 20, 2022, the presidential candidate of Accord Party, Christopher Imumolen said Nigeria has about 350,000 police personnel while speaking about his plan to tackle insecurity in Nigeria when he becomes the president.
A Nigerian fact-checker, Ikulajolu Adesola, intended to verify the claim but after rigorous search on the websites of the National Bureau of Statistics and Nigeria Police Force, among others, Adesola couldn’t find a reliable data to verify it. As a result, he couldn’t forge ahead with the fact-check.
“INTERPOL Nigeria data says Nigeria has about 350,000 police personnel. Dataphyte and ThisDay reports say 372,300 police personnel. We needed to confirm and even the police PPRO did not respond to our mail,” said Adesola.
“We resorted to using several other data available and try to compare and contrast – but a data from NBS or Nigerian Police Force would have given the fact in what we needed to use it for.”
The challenge of Adesola mirrors frequent difficulties facing many Nigerian fact-checkers in accessing data to ensure that the public consumes accurate information.
Inconsistent open data
According to the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) the proliferation of electoral disinformation, misinformation and the weaponisation of fake news poses the biggest threat to Nigeria’s 2023 election.
As widespread misinformation continues to threaten the forthcoming general elections in Nigeria, fact-checkers have been working tirelessly to stem the tide but access to credible data has proved to be one of the stumbling blocks to achieving productive political conversations and credible polls.
Findings have shown that several government agencies and organisations in Nigeria do not make government data readily available for citizens on their websites.
This, according to research, is due to of lack of political will, poor ICT infrastructure and a lack of highly skilled personnel in Nigerian government agencies.
The National Freedom of Information Ranking Cohort assesses the level of compliance to the Freedom of Information Act by public institutions based on three parameters, namely:
- Proactive Disclosure;
- Level of Responsiveness to requests for information and;
- Level of Disclosure.
Proactive disclosure ranks public institutions based on the level of information made available for public consumption on their official websites.
This includes information relating to the receipt or expenditure of public or other funds of the institution, names, salaries, titles, and dates of employment of all employees and officers of the Institution, name of every official and the final records of voting in all proceedings of the institution, file containing applications for any contract, permit, grants, licenses or agreement.
Other details are reports, documents, studies, or publications prepared by independent contractors for the institution, a description of the organisation and responsibilities of the institution including details of the programme and functions of each division, branch and department of the institution, materials containing information relating to any grant or contract made by or between the institution and another public institution or private organization, details of FOI Desk Officers, details of FOI Trainings and FOI Annual Report.
According to the 2022 ranking by the coalition, out of the 250 public institutions ranked, 231, representing 92 per cent were not fully proactive, which is a 16 per cent increase compared to 199 recorded in 2021. This shows that many Nigeria’s public institutions do not make critical information available on their websites.
This challenge has been a source of concern for journalists, researchers and fact-checkers who need credible data to enlighten citizens on the state of the nation. It also makes it hard for fact-checkers to hold politicians accountable for their claims.
Expressing her ordeals in navigating around this difficulty, Lois Ugbede, a fact-checker and researcher with Dubawa, said, “It is almost useless when the statistics for 2020 is what is available in 2022.
“It’s crazy fact-checking a claim in 2022 with data from 2020. So, most times, you must use the data you have to make the context clear just to save yourself from any backlash or pair the data with other sources.”
She recalled working on a claim about the unemployment rate in the country, and she couldn’t find recent data from the NBS to verify the claim except its unemployment report published in 2021.
“This (challenge of obsolete/non-available statistics) makes the job more tasking and frustrating,” she lamented.
Adesola warned that this deficiency could expose citizens to misinformation as fact-checkers would not be able to debunk misinformation coming out from Nigerian politicians and their supporters ahead of the 2023 elections.
“The implication of lack of access to credible data is that candidates will continue to churn out obsolete data or, better still, rely on other sources which might not be accurate.
“This will also not give candidates insights into certain sectors of importance. If data says there are 3 million out-of-school children, whereas the number had tripled, then campaign plans will be tailored towards the 3 million figure, making it look as if it isn’t a thing of huge concern.
“We will only have more misinformation because the agency to feed us with accurate data based on their wide reach and parameters, is not up to date,” Adesola told The FactCheckHub.
NBS outdated dataset
Lack of access to consistent data has always led to controversy and confusion in political conversations. For instance, the data of unemployment rate in the country elicited controversy online after the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, tweeted that Nigeria’s poverty rate stood at 35 per cent – nearly two points higher than the official statistics given by the NBS.
Findings by The FactCheckHub show that the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) used to be consistent in releasing the reports on quarterly basis until about two years ago. The last “Labour Force Statistics” was released in May, 2021. The report details the national and sub-national unemployment index as of the fourth quarter of 2020.
Even though Obi later corrected himself in his subsequent speeches, many still believe that the figure might have gone higher. This is due to the fact that report which was published two years ago cannot be used to appraise the present realities.
‘Many government agencies do not have modern websites’
Meanwhile, the Statistician General of the Federation and Chief Executive Officer of the NBS, Semiu Adeniran disclosed that the new Nigerian Labour Force Survey (NLFS) will be published in the first quarter of 2023.
Similarly, the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, made a claim about the number of social media users in Northern Nigeria.
The claim elicited mixed reactions online, but again, there was no direct evidence to corroborate or debunk Atiku’s claim as the data on the actual number of social media users – state by state is nowhere to be found.
A researcher and head of investigation at Humangle, Kunle Adebajo, argued that Nigerian government agencies have not been performing well in making essential data and information available on their websites.
“Many government agencies do not have modern websites, some of them their websites are not consistent and accessible. Some of them that have websites, when you go to the resources and downloads section, it’s usually very scanty. Sometimes there might be information there but it would be outdated. For instance, you need a report from 2022 but the last time they updated it was 2017. These are the challenges,” he said.
According to him, there have been improvements as well, such as the introduction of project monitoring applications launched by the Federal Government, among others.
On his part, Yusuf Akinpelu, a fact-checker and data journalist with BBC, noted that there have been improvements in proactive disclosure as a result of advocacy by Civil Society Organisations.
“I would say because of advocacy, there have been increase openness by government agencies to churn out data. You can imagine that from the open treasury portal that keeps records of government daily expenses that exceed certain limit. For the first time in long time, the NNPC yearly audit was released. We are not where we were before though it can be better,” Akinpelu said.
He further pointed out the need for fact-checkers to be equipped with the knowledge of interpreting the existing data and utilising it to inform the public.
“For instance, when NNPC released its audit, there were certain part of it that ordinarily, it’s not common knowledge among people, including journalists. As a journalist, we should seek knowledge of what we don’t know to inform the public better. ”
Akinpelu said there’s need for more advocacy to push the government to be more open and make the data more readily available and understandable for the public.
Poor response to information requests
Since the return to democratic government in Nigeria in 1999, active citizens and civil society organisations have been deeply engaging government to achieve transparency and accountability.
In 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Freedom of Information Act to allow access to public records and information.
The law gives a person, group, association or organization the right to access information from Government Agencies, Parastatals, Federal Civil Service, Private and Public sector organizations providing public services.
It provides a platform to hold leaders accountable and aids the decision-making process but public institutions have continued to disregard the provisions of the law.
When the information required to fact-check a claim is not publicly available, fact-checkers make use of this channel to request for the needed information.
The FOI law mandates the agencies involved to supply such a piece of information within seven working days; however, Nigerian public institutions have remained unresponsive to Freedom of Information Requests.
According to the 2022 ranking by the FOI cohort, only seven public institutions scored 50 points and above out of the 250 institutions assessed in the FOI compliance ranking.
The report stated that only 28 institutions responded to FOI requests within 0-14 days, 48 took longer than that while 183 failed to respond.
More notorious for poor responses to information request are the state public institutions that feel they are not bound by the law.
Several Nigerian states are yet to domesticate it or create similar mechanisms that serve to promote transparency and accountability in government while some states are also taking advantage of conflicting judicial pronouncements to evade the law.
The way forward…
Recently, the ICIR reported how stakeholders expressed concern over the failure of ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to honour the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) noting that it could hamper accountability governance in Nigeria.
The FOIA National Coordinator at the Ministry of Justice, Ayobamidele Bakare noted that the law mandates public servants to provide information upon request by the citizens because it is their right.
Bakare said that though the law makes provisions for certain information not to be disclosed without authorisation, the law also mandates public institutions to provide information proactively to the public via their websites according to Section 2 (3) a-f.
He, frowned at how MDAs still withhold some “ridiculously basic information”.
Similarly, the Executive Director, Centre for Transparency Advocacy, Faith Nwadishi, at the FOI ranking event held in September 2022, noted that various basic pieces of information like addresses were still absent on government websites.
Nwadishi urged citizens to demand more accountability from government agencies.
“If you look at the effort put into having the FOI law in place, we are not reciprocating that by demanding. You can only get accountability when you demand it. Nobody comes to give you an account of anything if you don’t demand it. So on the citizens and civil societies’ part, we need to do much more,” she said.
Adebajo, the researcher and head of investigations at Humangle, called for sanctioning of public institutions that fail to comply with the law in order to ensure adequate compliance.
“There should be sanctions for agencies that are found defaulting otherwise, people would think they can go on without adequate transparency.”
On his part, Akinpelu, the data journalist with the BBC, advised journalists to seek the support of civil society organisations that offer legal aid support to journalists willing to sue any institution that refuses to comply.
* This report was produced in partnership with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) with support from Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO).
Nurudeen Akewushola is a fact-checker with FactCheckHub. He has authored several fact checks which have contributed to the fight against fake news and other forms of information disorder. You can shoot him via firstname.lastname@example.org and @NurudeenAkewus1 via Twitter.