Undeterred by disobliging officials, civil society organisations and activists are pressing forward in the crusade for probity in public office. In another push, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, among other CSOs, is demanding that the Federal Government, the Central Bank of Nigeria and state governments furnish Nigerians with details of the public funds and private donations made to assist in fighting the coronavirus outbreak. Rightly, SERAP invoked a Freedom of Information request to back up its case for accountability. This is a minimum requirement for transparent governance, which the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), should take up in earnest.
Amid protests over the distribution of palliatives soon after the Federal Government imposed a lockdown on Lagos and Ogun states as well as Abuja in March to curtail the virus, SERAP identified the need for accountability in requesting the “details of beneficiaries of any cash payments, cash transfers, food distribution and other benefits” from the COVID-19 funds. Conscious of the usual allegations of massive fraud associated with public funds, it is logical that the donors and the public deserve to know how the funds are allocated.
Apart from the initial N10 billion and N6.5 billion the Federal Government allocated to Lagos State and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control respectively, the federal and state governments have received billions of naira in cash, medical equipment, vehicles and food supplies from international donors, the private sector and philanthropists.
The big donors include Aliko Dangote, Folorunso Alakija, Tony Elumelu, Femi Otedola, Abdulsamad Rabiu, Herbert Wigwe, Segun Agbaje and Jim Ovia. Other individuals like Tuface Idibia gave generously to bail out the state.
As an indictment, other responsible governments all over the world are reaching out directly to their citizens. For instance, the United States Federal Government made direct payments of up to $1,200 each to millions of Americans, with additional payments of $500 per child. Jobless workers also got a $600 increase per week. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said citizens would get about $930 each during the state of emergency. Here, under the lockdowns and night-time curfew over the past two months, Nigeria’s three tiers of government are barely running as civil servants salaries are threatened. And social safety net is almost nil.
It will, therefore, be a double jeopardy if the resources from donors are squandered or wasted. One of the ways to ensure that the funds are transparently disbursed is for all receiver-agencies to give regular accounts. As SERAP demanded, these agencies should publish weekly spending details on COVID-19 relief funds and donations and the list of all beneficiaries. This is the culture of public finance in many countries. Being accountable is a buffer against suspicions, speculations and unjustified criticism. In turn, it encourages donors to put more efforts into giving further assistance, a means of assuaging the pent-up fury of the citizens.
There is also the need to build public trust. Trust is the basis of governance, which is always observed in the breach in Nigeria. In 2016, SERAP secured a court judgement that compelled the Federal Government to account for all the recovered money stolen by officials between 1999 and 2015. This has been ignored. Following a SERAP FoI request in March to explain the details of the $5 billion looted by Sani Abacha, the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, eventually replied that the government did not have the details of the stolen money.
Corruption is still endemic. Much like before this regime, top public functionaries are being fingered for sleaze. A former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, is being prosecuted for a N500 million contract. Almost simultaneously, Ayo Oke was disengaged as the director-general of the National Intelligence Agency over a cash of $43 million found stashed away in a private home in Lagos. It took so long before the President acted on these cases.
Since 2008, those allegedly complicit in the N7.74 billion Police Equipment Fund case have been on trial, just as a group of governors, whose tenures expired in 2007, are being tried for corruption. Soon after the Buhari regime assumed office in 2015, the misappropriation of the $2.1 billion fund allocated to buy arms to fight Boko Haram under the Goodluck Jonathan administration became known. From the 2011 Aviation Intervention Fund, N120 billion of it was allegedly diverted into private pockets. In health, Nigeria was awash with the diversion of the N1.9 billion Ebola fund. This was just after the Geneva-based Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunisation suspended aid to Nigeria after the Ministry of Health officials failed to account for previous donations. To clear the mess, Nigeria reportedly refunded $2.2 million to GAVI. Health officials were also apprehended for diverting meningitis vaccines donated by international agencies.
To rid a country of public sector corruption, the Institute of Development Studies in the World Bank, in a 2011 report, advocated a multi-faceted approach, particularly the use of technology like the Open Data Initiative, a high level of transparency and accountability. The lead author, Joel Turkewitz, argued, “Well, there are a few different reasons why we should value greater transparency. The first is the way that transparency potentially changes the way government operates. The second is that transparency potentially changes the relationship between people and government officials. And a third reason is that transparency enables groups, that otherwise would not be able to participate, to participate in governance.”
Nigerians are labouring under poverty. The irreducible minimum the Buhari regime can offer is to be radically transparent and judicious in its management of the COVID-19 funds. No details should be spared. The government should create a website and update it at speed for every individual, corporate and international donor, the amount and the equipment that were donated, and the beneficiaries. It should subject itself to media scrutiny to reduce leakages in government in general.
The Punch Editorial