A People’s Court, Live and On the Air in Nigeria

It's amazing what a one-hour-a-day program has been able to do for Nigerians who, until now, had no hope for accessing justice.

It’s 7:00 a.m. and I’m rushing through my morning routine with an eye on the clock. My plan is to get into my car before 7:30 a.m. so I can tune in and listen to the Brekete Family Radio program. It is always the perfect companion during my 15-minute drive to work through Abuja’s bumper-to-bumper traffic.

As I drive out of my compound, I am relieved to hear the voice of Ordinary Ahmed Isa, the president and host of the Brekete Family, come on the air with the familiar but strange greeting "Hembelembe," to which his studio audience responds “Olololoooo.” You can’t help but mutter the response under your breath. The atmosphere is electrifying because you don’t know what to expect on this show.

The Brekete Family Radio (BFR) is a reality radio program in Abuja, modeled after a public complaint forum or people’s court. Conducted in the local lingua franca (pidgin English), people call in to report on issues of impunity, whether public or private. The panel sitting in the studio discusses the issue and invites the public to give advice to the plaintiff.

In some circumstances, the government official involved is actually called while the program is still on air to offer an explanation over an alleged act of impunity. This kind of on-air public accountability inquest has become very effective in putting a large number of public officers on the spot and has also achieved significant results in confronting impunity.

The Brekete Family Radio has become essential listening for ordinary Nigerians and, in some cases, for top government officials who are in need of a public mea culpa. This platform is for gathering public opinion, obtaining public redress, facilitating arbitration, and fundraising for a scholarship program for the poor.

It is amazing what a one-hour-a-day program has been able to do for Nigerians who, until now, had no hope for accessing justice. In a country where institutions of accountability are grossly incapacitated, Brekete Family Radio is fast becoming the last resort of the common man.

And so on my morning drive to work, once again the program fails to disappoint. The issue before the Brekete panel this morning is the story of a man who was wrongfully dismissed from his job at a government agency for clearly unsubstantiated reasons. Years of approved allowances were still owed and the man had exhausted his meagre savings trying to get the agency in question to pay what was rightfully owed.

Ordinary Ahmed quickly calls the head of this government agency to get this side of the story.  When the top official gets on the phone, and just moments after Ahmed introduces the issue, the man hangs up. All other attempts to call him back prove unsuccessful. Obviously the man is not keen on having this particular conversation. But now the fun part: the official’s telephone numbers are announced on air and Nigerians are invited to text and call him until the issue is resolved.

Brekete Family Radio is aired in five states in Nigeria, including Abuja. It has an estimated listenership of some 20 million people, and every day the program is flooded with thousands of text messages and hundreds of phone calls. There is also always a crowd of plaintiffs in the BFR office itself. They work with volunteer lawyers, and do their best to assist everyone and anyone that has an issue.

As I drive on after the show has ended, I smile. I’m imagining the onslaught of calls this government official will soon receive. And as I pull up to my office, I realize the awesome potential this radio show has and how it can dramatically amplify citizens’ demands.

On my way to work the following day, the government official is now on-air providing a public apology to all Nigerians. Apparently his phone has been ringing off the hook. The bombardment of messages nearly caused his phone to breakdown. Suffice it to say, the case of the plaintiff’s overdue entitlements was resolved within weeks.

The Brekete Family Radio is an Open Society partner based in Abuja, Nigeria, and streamed online. Aside from producing this daily radio program, the project involves a monthly newsletter that capture the key cases to be followed up on and a collection of evidence that may be used as a basis for future advocacy efforts on political, economic and social issues.

Perhaps the biggest value that BFR has added to anti-impunity work in Nigeria is establishing a rallying platform for Open Society grantees, and indeed many NGOs, seeking to engage with Nigerians, educate them on various issues, and field questions on issues such open government and public procurement. These are issues that, ordinarily, the average man on the street may never grasp. 

What BFR has been able to achieve is simply invaluable. And perhaps most important, they have given a voice to the voiceless and will continue to sustain hope that Nigeria is not beyond redemption. It really is the people’s court with a heart.

26 Comments

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So glad to know about Open Society and Brekete Family Radio. What is the status of #BringBackOurGirls?

Radio being used in the best possible way. I love this idea.

The girls are still not rescued

This is brilliant idea, giving hope to those Nigerians hit with official indifference. We need similar in the EC! I hope the programme soon extends to an hour a day as the demand must be overwhelming at the moment.

GREAT MATTER OUR SOLIDARITY ALWAYS FOR BREKETE FAMILY RADIO WORKS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS!!!

It's one in a million problems of an enormous population under the monstrous bureaucratic tentacles of any national government.

In the Philippines, the same frame of media programs gave due results.

Certainly, due recognition is given to a supportive populace.

Asfor me, I am tired
e of program produces x

This is a great innovation, I tune in to listen also and it is so obvious how much the voiceless are unheard. A great platform for issues to be thrown to the open.

I totally agree with this kind of Radio, it shares a wonderful story.

I think is is a timely and very relevant but successful pilot project and therefore needs tto be replicated in many other countries in the World: Myself as a person with a physical disability caused by polio and now i am doing advocacy work in West Africa about the true causes of disability and the respect for the rights of disable people and eaual acces to justice for all; i really need your help to now adapt this your new best practice in the media to my advocacy work on disability issues to maximise the impact on my work.

very very impressive, indeed a crucial step towards endorsing rights, good governance , accountability and an important capacity building exercise to both community and local authorities

We can have a separate conversation on some ideas

Good job, we are planning to do a similar in Kwara State but we have financial challenges that we hope to overcome soon. Keep it up!!!

As a Nigerian, I always commend the Open Society Initiative for West Africa efforts to champion issues that affects the ordinary people. With the calibre of leadership at OSIWA in Nigeria, it's a matter of time that the voice of the ordinary man will be taken seriously by those in power. It's borders me that "Fueling Poverty" was barned by the authorities

Bravo BFR. I do concur with Sarr. Such formats of radio programmes should also take root in other countries. Guys hiding under the veil of incorporation should be unveiled and brought to book. THE TIME IS NOW

very very impressive, indeed a crucial step towards endorsing rights, good governance , accountability and an important capacity building exercise to both community and local authorities

Brilliant concept! We have been trying to get similar programmes on air in East Africa as a project of the JK Nyerere Centre for Good Governance and Media Studies (a consortium of universities and civic media groups) at the Open University of Tanzania. Can you share any lessons you have learned? Thanks.

Get in touch with me and we can have further conversation outside this platform

In my town,Lira (pop.90,000) in Uganda, Seven radio stations are doing the same variously for one to two hours and it has become a duty everyday.Discussions continue in fields,taxis ,on the roads, everywhere to update those who missed earlier.In RADIO NORTH we call it talk- now and it obliges all to talk and the leaders are now realizing the value of not ignoring the program lest one is deemed corrupt.Only the time space is limited as we on free time.

Dear Ilo,
This is a good and effective initiative to ensure public-private sphere accountability and transparency. Let me ask, is Lagos one of the five States this programne is aired? If not, we can advocate for this. A lot of similar things happen every time in Lagos.

Yes! The program will soon extend to Lagos. BFR is working on that now.

In Uganda,the same approach can work effectively.I request you to support us start this project.I will be happy to receive positive response from you soon.Thanks

Keep on track Radio Brekete! The voice of the voiceless will be heard through you..Radio Bakhita, the voice of the Church in South Sudan is conducting similar program, though the impact is less due to lack of democracy in the country

Way to go Radio Brekete! I applaud your courage to amplify the muted voices of aggrieved ordinary Nigerians who without a forum such as Radio Brekete's will otherwise remain muted.

Hello Ilo, i can recall listening to a similar program on one of the Radio stations here in Lagos as they put some government officials on the sport. Does OSIWA Nigeria have a Lagos office as I will like to visit the office. Great work for Brekete Radio!

I love this idea: I can see how it would be effective in every country--including the USA. This is also a great way to educate people about their rights and gives them a tool to enforce them. Often, both are missing elements in consumer protection and access to justice bc many people do not have the necessary funds to file a legal action, and courts can be intimidating and/or corrupt.

I just wish you could take this beyond Abuja and environs, since this is working.

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