By Cosmas Attayi-Elaigu (News Agency of Nigeria)

One of the major challenges facing Nigeria since the return of democracy in 1999 is the capacity of core stakeholders in the various aspects of democratic governance.

The legislative arm of government — the major victim of military regimes — constantly had to start learning the rope each time civil rule is restored.

The committee staff in the legislature at all levels; legislative aides and other support staff, most times found themselves as beginners as a result of suspension of civil rule.

It is in realisation of the paucity of such knowledge and skill that the National Assembly, in partnership with relevant civil society organisations and consultants, has continued to raise the capability of this critical segment of governance.

One of such efforts is the recent two-day training on “Using New Media to Enhance Legislative Efficiency”, organized by the management of the federal legislature, in collaboration with two consultants — Strategic Network Systems Ltd. and African Exchange Programme.

Organised specifically for Senior Legislative Aides, the event held at the National Women Development Centre, Abuja.

The Clerk of the National Assembly (CNA), Chief Oluyole Ogunyemi, said the event was part of the developmental process in assisting legislators through well-trained aides.

He said the training, which was packaged through collaboration between the two chambers of federal legislature, was a continuation of a similar one held in July 2009.

Ogunyemi observed that the task of managing lawmakers by legislative aides was a difficult one, and that training on ICTs would enhance the competence of the staff to improve on the performance of their principals.

He said since government had adopted e-government and e-payment, the National Assembly was of the opinion that legislative aides should not be left behind.

He commended the Senate President, David Mark and House Speaker, Dimeji Bankole, for their support for the training, adding that since the world had become a global village it was necessary for the country’s legislature to be one of the ICT-friendly parliaments at the global scene.

Participants at the event called for regular training of the legislative aides, including foreign interactions, so that they could be exposed to the experiences of advanced democracies.

“There is not enough interaction between Nigerian legislative aides and their counterparts from other parts of the world”, they said in a communique at the end of the programme.

They observed that in spite of the huge benefits in the deployment of ICTs for legislative work, most legislative aides do not have sufficient skills to maneuver the technology for optimal utilisation.

Four lead presentations were made by resource persons at the two-day skills acquisition session.

“Working with Nigerian Online Communities” was presented by Mrs Wabuji Kefas-Dore; “Blogging Made Simple for Political Office Holders” was by Rima Shawulu Kwewum, a consultant on ICTs.

Boniface Kassam — a communications expert – presented “Working with the Nigerian Media: The Challenge for Legislative Aides”, and “Database Management” was by Edoho Daniel.

Dr. Samson Omojuyigbe of the Africa Exchange Programme, in a remark, expressed the preparedness of the trainers to impact knowledge of ICTs on the participating Senior Legislative Aides.

Omojuyigbe commended the large turnout of the aides and urged them to make good use of the knowledge they would acquire from the training.

Mrs Wabuji Kefas-Dore, a London based ICT expert, informed participants that millions of people around meet regularly online to chat, to debate topical issues, to give or ask for information, to find support and join discussion groups.

She described these social gatherings as ‘online community’.

“Nigerians all over the globe are amongst the millions of people who have developed and are engaged in online community groups. Factors like the purpose of the community, as in parliamentary practice or constituency demands and software environment characterise the online community,” she said.

Kefas-Dore argued that parliamentary staff could make use of chat rooms, email, instant messengers, forums, websites and conference calls — through the telephone — in the speedy execution of their responsibilities.

“Early online communities for education, networked communities and office communities were developed for known groups of users, whose characteristics, needs and skills were known and who had the same or similar communications software.

“Since then, the number of computer users has increased dramatically. The range of people participating in various kinds of online communities has also changed.

“While some communities require members to have particular skills or qualifications, there are millions of open communities in which anyone with internet and web access can participate.

“Consequently, the majority of users in these open communities and many others are not technical people or skilled workers. Today’s online community participants come from all walks of life,” she said.

Kefas-Dore listed the advantages of online communities to include an “anytime, anyplace’’ framework for facilitating and building partnership and collaboration among legislative aides and legislative committees.

She said it would also support “high tech, high touch’’ process for capturing a group’s best thinking as it “becomes a springboard for creative synergy, and a framework for maintaining time and attention, and supports secured, invited access to contribute to knowledge gathering and sharing”.

According to her, online communities are becoming a popular way to organise people and accomplish work in a highly collaborative manner.

“We all have to get better at participating and creating online communities in the coming years as it is beginning to be understood that online communities are not just for socialising, but for getting things done”, she said.

Kwewum, who led training on simple adaptation of blogging for political office holders, said the Internet was seen as an elite fad in the past but the situation has changed as “the most crowded place outside parks, beer parlours and worship centres are cyber cafes.”

The communications expert praised government policies that encouraged ICTs, citing the use of Internet for West African Examination Council (WAEC), National Examination Council (NECO), JAMB and post-University Matriculation Examination (UME) forms, as well as passport and employment applications.

“In some other African countries, including South Africa, tax assessments and payment are done online. The Lagos State Government has gone far in this direction, and as demands for accountability and transparency increases, many more organisations and institutions would be operating principally online,” he said.

He observed that such public institutions as the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), NigcomSat and National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), were providing community communication centres equipped with computers, Internet telephony facilities and broadband Internet access.

To prove that education is no more a barriers to the ICTs, he said, computing devices such as keyboards are being localized to enable more people access the Internet in their languages.

Citing the 2004 United States of America presidential election, the expert said the Democratic Party candidate Howard Dean used his blog to recruit volunteers and raised $50 million.

“Similarly, in 2008, President Barack Obama used the Internet to overwhelm his Democratic counterpart Hilary Clinton and later the Republican candidate John McCain. “His bloggers and social networking platforms registered more than 1.5 million new voters who organised themselves into 35,000 groups.

“A total of 150 meetings were organised by supporters who made millions of phone calls, donated millions of dollars and took the Obama campaign into millions of American homes,” he said.

Kwewum argued that blogging could be deployed to help politicians, when used “to recruit new members and supporters, raise funds for campaigns, debunk negative publicity, introduce new issues to the media, get instantaneous feedback on issues and conduct surveys on specific political matters.

“For most politicians, especially those starting out new, the costs of advertising in the traditional media such as the television, radio, newspapers and magazines are simply not affordable.

“The cost of placing a one-page advertisement in one newspaper can be deployed to set up and maintain a blog for over 10 years,” he said.

Boniface Kassam, who diagnosed the challenges faced by legislative aides in their manipulation of the media for political advantage, explained the various dimensions of the media of mass communications.

“It informs. It keeps one up-to-date. It educates, broadens and deepens one’s perspectives. It persuades, it sells goods and services, candidate and opinions,” he said.

He argued that senior legislative aides have the responsibility of writing well-informed press releases in a clear and interesting manner for circulation to the media on behalf of their principals.

This, he said, could be enhanced through press conferences, where an elected representative could explain certain actions and his role in such actions.

Messrs. Emmanuel Ogbor, Akpaudo Bassey, Uduak Udoka, Paul Ogbaji, Onabolu Lolu, Bello Oladele and Adebayo Akala, all legislative aides, who participated in the training, agreed that politicians could perform better if their aides were properly enlightened in all aspects of online communication.

They asked for improved financial support to encourage them to adequately aid their principals.

It is necessary for the management of the legislature at the federal, state and local government levels to pay special attention to the manpower gaps of the support staff.

Provision of adequate fiscal resources will enable the affected aides to acquire the needed skills to provide modern and latest information to their principals who will in turn make laws for the good governance of the society.