A Year Later, Youths Are Still Tracking COVID Spending in Nigeria

‘Kevwe P. Oghide

A growing group of young Nigerians are demanding that the government accounts for the $8.9 billion dollars donated by international agencies, corporate organisations and individuals to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic and secure the country’s failing healthcare and economic infrastructure.

Follow the Money is holding Nigerian Government to Transparency Standards

A social accountability initiative, Follow the Money, largely driven by youths who are holding government to accountable standards and ensuring they deliver on improving public services have expressed deep concerns about government’s responsiveness to battling COVID. At the time when the first donation for COVID was announced late March 2020, young Follow the Money activists began trailing and tracking the funds closely, asking pertinent accountability questions and following the money to ensure proper allocations and spending to fight the pandemic.

Follow The Money activists at Eagle Square in Abuja, ready to document palliatives distribution by the Ministry of Human Affairs

The young activists tracking COVID funds were not backing down during the lockdown, they deployed online tools to monitor spending, drive conversation to spark actions and advocate for a transparent and inclusive approach, urging government stakeholders to make public all funds released for the fight against COVID and its implementation plans. They are collectively challenging their federal and state government to be more responsive to requests for detailed reports on COVID spending.

Over 60% of Nigerians distrust the government—given a history of inherent corruption and financial leakages, coupled with the widening inequality gap and its poor economic performance. Governance has also been marked by a lack of transparency, poor accountability, careless leadership, opaque budget systems and lack of civic involvement.

Already, over 4000 Follow the Money activists across the 36 States of Nigeria, including the Federal Capital Territory, are tracking funds, documenting procurement processes distribution of palliatives, cash transfer programs and amplifying voices of people in marginalised communities who are not beneficiaries of COVID palliatives. One of the beneficiaries 53-year old retiree turned cab driver, John Usegwu who lives in a rural area in Inyanya part of the country’s capital, Abuja. Usegwu noted that although he is glad the government gave them palliatives, it is insufficient to feed his family of 6 , especially as this is a one-time support . As a cab driver, Usegwu’s means of livelihood was hampered due to the lockdown enforcement.

Using online and Off-line Advocacy tools during pandemic lockdown reveals how Government spent $8.9 billion dollars on COVID

The influx of huge donations, cumulating to $8.9 billion dollars, was impressive at the beginning but to date details about spending have been patchy, confirming fears that the donations would end up in personal pockets. Official statements on COVID supplies surveillance, palliatives distribution, isolation centers and capacity building were often evasive. In the early stage when the Follow the Money activists started tracking donations and spending, the founder of the initiative, Hamzat Lawal took to Twitter to ask the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mele Kyari, for details of $28.8 million claimed to be donated by the NNPC and 30 partners. Kyari responded that “all donations will be in kind.” Similar vague responses by the government, makes it difficult for citizens to hold any public institution to transparency standards.

Documenting citizens’ voices on the impact of COVID on lifestyle

Some officials have been responsive to Follow The Money’s request for information on how COVID funds are being utilized. The Accountant-General of the Federation in a response to Follow The Money’s freedom of Information (FoI) request, compiled a breakdown of how it dispensed 84% of N36 Billion it received to tackle COVID. It revealed that it gave $57.8 million to the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 and distributed $18.4 million to support COVID-19 initiatives in the 36 States of the country. $2.3 billion was given to the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) for the deployment of assets in support of COVID-19 operations; while the Nigeria Police received $1.3million on personal protective equipment and $47 was paid as bank charges.”

Follow The Money sent 57 FoI request letters, received by 27 State Government agencies, requesting details of COVID19 funds and the distribution of palliatives. Of the 6 States that responded, Ondo State revealed that it spent $6.3m on medical services and food distribution to the vulnerable and $150,000 on face masks and medical supplies while Oyo State reported its spending of $5.3 million to tackle COVID. The other 4 provided sparse information, assuring that palliatives were distributed accordingly, even though there were no details of distribution and evidence of the same. It was no surprise when palliative hideouts were stormed by hungry Nigerians—who have had to endure a deplorable economic situation and poverty level worsened by the impact of the coronavirus. The discovery of the hideouts further exposes the rot and persistent corruption in leadership.

Vague Procurement Processes means Follow the Money and BudgIT must carry out a Social Audit in Africa

On a larger scale, unclear procurement processes are drivers of corruption in implementing government projects. The national emergency procurement policies were updated only after Follow the Money activists demanded, during a webinar on Emergency Procurement to fight a Pandemic, that the Bureau of Public Procurement and the Central Bank update their emergency policies in the wake of COVID. The call stated that a transparent procurement platform and an open-data approach can promote accountability, strengthen due diligence and prevent financial leakages and corruption. Shortly after, government agencies paid attention: the BPP, the Accountant-General of the Federation, Ministry of Finance and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission published guidelines for the management of COVID-19 donation funds.

Minister of State, Humanitarian Affairs at the Eagle Square in Abuja to launch COVID palliatives distribution

Still, weak transparency and poor accountability often impede the implementation of standard policies. Despite the promise of the Federal Ministry of Finance, the Budget and National Planning to be more Freedom of Information (FoI)-compliant, citizens are yet to receive the total sum of donations by international bodies, private organisations, individuals and institutions to fight the pandemic.

Although BudgIT, a social accountability organisation, recently demanded a breakdown of the 8.9 billion spent by CBN on COVID19 response, accessing information on palliatives distribution and COVID interventions has proven to be an uphill task.

The issue in Nigeria is no different from many African countries. To further combat the menace of poor government transparency and accountability in public finance in Africa, CODE and BudgIT, in collaboration with Global Integrity, have now launched the COVID-19 Transparency and Accountability Project (CTAP), an initiative that will spearhead a social audit of COVID-19 intervention funds in Kenya, Malawi, Cameroun, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

The response to pandemics should prioritize the participation of citizens, including needs assessments and provision of palliatives, procurement and delivery of items, thus, the primary aim of this project will be to drive citizens’ engagement using innovative tech tools, creating an interactive portal to publish COVID data and fact-checking public institutions activities on spending to combat the pandemic.

CTAP will also address the threat of lack of accountability and the effects of COVID-19 on socio-economic development. It will strengthen existing tools and build new ones where necessary to match citizens’ needs in the current emergency response and use technology platforms as a means to drive accountability on the importance of optimising public resources in an emergency situation.

Although poor access to information and secrecy in government have proven to be challenges, Follow the Money and Tracka are unrelenting in their mission to promote fiscal transparency and hold governments to transparency standards. Citizens must be alert, demanding that government agencies and institutions provide civil society groups and the media, acting as watchdogs in this crucial time, with accurate and timely information.

Kevwe Oghide is a Communications and Advocacy lead and currently oversees all communications activities at CODE.

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