At first, no one knew why the children of Bagega in Zamfara state were dying. In the spring of 2010, hundreds of kids in and around the northern Nigerian village were falling ill, having seizures and going blind, many of them never to recover. A Médecins Sans Frontières team soon discovered the causes: gold and lead.
With the global recession causing the price of precious metals to soar, impoverished villagers had turned to mining the area’s gold deposits. But the gold veins were mingled with lead, and as a result the villagers’ low-tech mining methods were sending clouds of lead-laced dust into the air. The miners, unknowingly carrying the powerful toxin on their clothes and skin, brought it into their homes where their children breathed it in.
The result was perhaps the worst outbreak of lead poisoning in history, killing over 400 children in Bagega and neighbouring villages. In response, the Nigerian government pledged to clean up the lead-contaminated topsoil and provide medical care to the stricken children. But by mid-2012, there was no sign of the promised funds. Digitally savvy activists with the organisation Connected Development (CODE) stepped in to make sure that the money was disbursed.
A group of young Nigerians founded CODE in 2010 in the capital Abuja, with the mission of empowering local communities to hold the government to account by improving their access to information and helping their voices to be heard. ‘In 2010, we were working to connect communities with data for advocacy programmes,’ says CODE co-founder Oludotun Babayemi, a former country director of a World Wildlife Fund project in Nigeria. ‘When we heard about Bagega, we thought this was an opportunity for us.’
In 2012, CODE launched a campaign dubbed ‘Follow the Money Nigeria’ aimed at applying pressure on the government to release the promised funds. ‘Eighty per cent of the less developed parts of Nigeria have zero access to Twitter, let alone Facebook, so it’s difficult for them to convey their stories,’ says Babayemi. ‘We collect all the videos and testimonies and take it global.’
CODE members travelled to the lead-afflicted area to gather information. They then posted their findings online, and publicised them with a #SaveBagega hashtag, which they tweeted to members of the government, local and international organisations and the general public. CODE hosted a 48-hour ‘tweet-a-thon’, joined by a senator, to support the campaign.
In December 2012, Human Rights Watch became involved, launching a social media campaign urging people to write on President Goodluck Jonathan’s official Facebook page: ‘President Jonathan, why won’t you release the money you promised in May to clean up poisonous lead in Zamfara? Children are dying and your government’s failure to act is putting more children at risk.’
By January of 2013, the campaign had reached some one million people, and dozens of media outlets had picked up on the story. At the end of that month, the federal government released the $5.3 million it had promised to clean up Bagega. CODE followed up to make sure that the lead remediation work actually happened, making monthly trips to the region.
By July 2014, CODE reported that the clean-up was complete and that over 1,000 children had been screened and enrolled in lead treatment programmes. Bagega’s health centre has also been refurbished and the village’s roads improved. ‘There are thousands of communities like Bagega,’ says Babayemi. ‘They just need someone to amplify their voice.’
CODE has remained busy. In addition to initiatives involving the monitoring of funds for education and flood victims, in January it launched a campaign to track a government programme that promises to spend $50 million to buy and distribute 750,000 clean-burning cooking stoves and 18,000 ‘Wonderbags’ to rural Nigerian women. The Wonderbags – portable slow cookers that require no electricity – and the stoves are meant to replace open indoor cooking fires, the smoke from which is estimated to kill over 95,000 Nigerian women each year, according to the World Health Organization.
CODE is keeping tabs on the programme’s progress by filing requests under Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act, meeting with government officials and keeping in touch with other stakeholders. ‘It is not news that previous funds provided by the government (federal, state and local) for the purchase of clean cooking technologies disappeared before they reach beneficiaries,’ the group’s website warns.
As of mid-June 2015, only about 15% of the funds had been released to contractors to actually provide the stoves and bags, and the Ministry of Environment was refusing to provide CODE with information about how those contractors were chosen. ‘We are sceptical about what will happen to the rest of the money,’ says Babayemi. The group is keeping a close eye on the programme, and is ready to launch another social media campaign if it fails to deliver.
- Revealing information is not enough; change requires a real-world campaign driven by that information and civil society champions who can leverage their status and networks to draw international attention to the issues and maintain pressure.
- Building relationships with sympathetic members of government is key.
- Targeted online campaigns can help amplify the message of marginalised communities offline to achieve impact.