By Olasupo Abideen
Twenty-four years into Nigeria’s transition to a democratic system of government, concerns persist regarding the extent to which Nigerians can enjoy the benefits of practicing this system. Despite apprehensions about the country’s development rate and its impact on the African region, there is a significant optimism that a democratic system of government guarantees freedom of expression and, to a large extent, upholds human rights. This hope has fostered the emergence of innovative approaches to combat democratic issues such as corruption, electoral malpractice, and political exclusion. One of the latest trends aimed at optimizing the dividends and positive impact of democracy involves the deployment of advanced technologies, particularly Artificial Intelligence (AI), to digital solutions that promote anti-corruption measures, citizen participation, and the supremacy of the law.
As the saying goes, democracy is a system of government that revolves around the people. Therefore, it is essential to continually empower the people and harness their potential for development. Artificial Intelligence (AI) has made significant strides in various fields such as agriculture, technology, and digital health, and it has now made a grand entrance into government systems. Considering the current state of democracy in Africa, African governments cannot afford to lag behind in adopting this innovation. The introduction of AI in government systems stems from the growing demand for participatory and deliberative forms of democracy, including budget tracking, social audits, and transparent online voting systems.
In the recently concluded 2023 general elections, it appeared that candidates and political parties devoted more money and time to engaging with citizens online. This indicates a potential digital shift in democratic institutions and frameworks, presenting new dynamics for revitalizing the system. According to a report published by the Innovation in Politics Institute and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), public officeholders often lack the experience to identify and select suitable digital tools to promote citizen participation. Additionally, the lack of political will, particularly in developing countries like Nigeria, may have significantly contributed to the limited or absence of deployment of AI tech tools that could enhance citizens’ education and participation in the process.
One can recall the sustained advocacy for #OpenNASS, where Nigerians advocated for transparent legislative processes, and how it took a considerable amount of time before the National Assembly reluctantly and partially provided information about the salaries and allowances of lawmakers in Nigeria. Now, the latest demand from Nigerians is the implementation of technology to identify lawmakers and their voting decisions when it comes to the passage of important bills in the National Assembly. It has become perplexing that lawmakers publicly support certain crucial bills that align with the aspirations of Nigerians, only to vote against them in secret. Unfortunately, Nigerians are unable to identify the lawmakers who voted against these bills, which they had overwhelmingly planned to support. There is a clear need for more transparency, especially during deliberations and voting on the passage of bills.
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For instance, during the constitutional amendment process, lawmakers overwhelmingly voted against bills that aimed to promote gender inclusion and equity. If Nigerians could identify the lawmakers who voted against such bills, it would significantly influence citizens’ voting decisions in the 2023 general elections. Imagine a Nigeria where citizens are aware of and participate in the decision-making process of their lawmakers, governors, president, and other representatives through the deployment of AI technology. This would greatly contribute to citizen education, enabling them to understand how systems work, identify issues, track impact, and increase participation in governance.
As a technology that analyzes complex data, algorithms, and online research feedback, AI has a significant opportunity to optimize its system and tailor it to meet contextual demands. In this regard, citizens would only need to ask specific questions about policy implementation, budgeting, and other matters to receive critical information about how the state is being managed.
Recently, several democracy technology platforms have capitalized on the AI boom to introduce new features and enhance existing ones. For example, Citizen Lab utilizes AI to identify key themes and trends in collected data, facilitating online consultations, surveys, and discussion forums. It also employs machine learning to analyze the tone and sentiment of comments. Polis, from the Computational Democracy Project, uses AI to guide group discussions and identify areas of agreement and disagreement among participants by collecting statements and submissions and circulating them for agreement, disagreement, or further discussion. Other democracy technology tools that employ AI include Adhocracy for input categorization and moderation assistance, and ZenCity for trend and theme identification.
One of the most intriguing aspects of adopting and deploying AI technologies to advance democracies is the seamless nature that allows citizens to participate effectively, mostly from the comfort of their own homes. However, this convenience comes with surmountable concerns regarding data security, funding, digital dependency, potential exclusion, and other ethical implications that must be deliberately addressed if AI is to play a crucial role in advancing democracies and promoting political education and participation.
Considering that digital technological tools always require personal information such as biographies, demographics, emails, and phone numbers, concerns arise regarding the ownership and security of such data collected by AI. This is a major issue, particularly in a country lacking essential laws that protect citizens’ data privacy. Consequently, it becomes imperative for the National Assembly to expedite the passage of the Data Protection Bill currently awaiting consideration, as it would establish a framework to prevent the misuse of personal data.
Last, deploying AI tech tools requires huge financial, structural, and human investment at all levels of government. Thus, it is crucial for all levels of government, political parties, communication and digital ministries, agencies, and the private sector to collaborate in developing AI tools that promote deliberative participation. This collaboration will greatly enhance the legitimacy of power and contribute to the effective adoption and deployment of these tools in Nigeria’s democratic system.
Abideen is a good governance, youth investment, and public policy enthusiast. He is the Global Director of Brain Builders Youth Development Initiative and also serves as the Kwara State coordinator of the NotTooYoungToRun movement.
He tweets @opegoogle
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