A People’s Court, Live and On the Air in Nigeria
By Udo Jude Ilo
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.
The Brekete Family Radio is supported in part by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.
Udo Jude Ilo is head of the Nigeria office for the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.