Nigeria: Live on-air people’s court

| August 4, 2014

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The Brekete Family Radio program is a perfect way to pass the time if you are stuck in the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Abuja’s morning rush hour.

Ordinary Ahmed Isa is the show’s host. His voice travels across the airwaves with a familiar greeting, Hembelembe, to which his studio audience responds, Olololoooo. Listeners in the traffic jam, or go-slow as it is called in Nigeria, mutter the response under their breath. No one can predict what will happen on this show.

Brekete Family Radio is a program modelled on a public complaint forum or people’s court. Listeners call in to report cases of government officials or private individuals avoiding punishment or censorship for their actions. A studio panel discusses the issue and invites the public to offer advice to the complainant.

The daily one-hour program has helped Nigerians who, until now, had no hope of accessing justice. Brekete Family Radio is quickly becoming the last resort of the common man in a country where many institutions are unaccountable.

Sometimes, the program calls a government official live on air and asks the official to explain his or her actions. Putting public officials on the spot through this kind of on-air public inquest has achieved significant results.

Recently, the studio panel heard the story of a man who was dismissed from his job at a government agency without clear cause. The man was still owed money and had exhausted his meagre savings trying to get a fair settlement.

Mr. Isa called the head of the government agency to get its side of the story. The official answered – but almost immediately hung up. Attempts to call him back were unsuccessful. The official in question did not seem keen to have this particular conversation. So Mr. Isa announced the official’s telephone numbers on air. Listeners were invited to text and call him until the issue was resolved.

Brekete Family Radio is broadcast in five Nigerian states, including Abuja. An estimated 20 million people listen daily, more than one in ten Nigerians. The program is flooded every day with thousands of text messages and hundreds of phone calls. Volunteer lawyers do their best to assist everyone who has an issue.

The program has become essential listening for many Nigerians. It is a platform for gathering public opinion, obtaining public redress, facilitating arbitration, and even fundraising for a scholarship program for the poor. The show has tapped deeply into Nigerians’ need for transparency and justice.

The day after he was publicly embarrassed on the radio, and as morning traffic again sat bumper-to-bumper, the government official offered a public, on-air apology to all Nigerians. Apparently, his phone had been ringing constantly. The bombardment of messages from listeners had forced his hand. The case of the overdue entitlement was resolved within weeks.

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