Fighting Corruption in Nigeria Demands a Harder Look at States

By Oluseun Onigbinde, Co-Founder of BudgIT

This guest blog was written by Oluseun Onigbinde, Co-Founder of BudgIT. Omidyar Network is a proud supporter of BudgIT and its mission to provide Nigerian citizens with access to and understanding of public budgets.

President Buhari’s remarks at the “Tackling Corruption Together” event, a pre-event for the London anti-corruption Summit, on the efforts of the central government to fight graft does not tell the full story in Nigeria. The other tiers of government — states and local governments — which control up to 48% of Nigeria’s revenue are yet to show enthusiasm for reforms that uproot corruption.

A few years ago, a non-profit organisation — Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) — sent a Freedom of Information Request to the Lagos State Government on the expenditure of a $90m World Bank loanmeant for school buildings. Rather than release this information, the State embarked on a long legal battle, using technicalities to evade accountability. Lagos State had also passed the Public Procurement Act, but rather than disclose all procurement procedures, as stated in the Act on its Public Procurement Website, Lagos does not publish the documents on time. For a State that is Africa’s seventh largest economy, which boasts of resources and a GDP that exceeds that of Ghana and Kenya, the shameful reality is that expecting continuous declaration of revenues, accountability and transparent contracting is a tall order.

Yet, Lagos with its dismal transparency levels, is a better example than the majority of Nigeria’s 36 States.

Most States have Governors acting as lords with flagrant disregard for data collation, publishing, audits and transparency in general. While results can be achieved at central government level due to better institutions and intense focus, to allow governors who control enormous national resources to continue to operate with impunity will prove detrimental to any anti-corruption policies instituted by the federal government or provided for by law. Added to this is that most State Governors have also hijacked their state legislature, making them either accomplices, or prostrate and powerless.

In our years of advocacy, a recurring lesson is that it is very difficult to advance conversations and campaigns on transparency while a poor civic culture, secrecy around data and weak institutions exist. Years of successive layers of opacity and inefficiency have made Nigerian States so dependent on oil rent shared centrally that with the recent dip in oil prices, over 27 States sought a bailout to meet basic personnel obligations, while developmental projects that would directly benefit citizens took a back seat.

This poor accountability at State-level remains enhanced by a glaring absence of coherent data with which to assess, monitor and project the fiscal direction and eventual viability of Nigeria’s States. In sum, the current financial crisis is expected to place a massive strain on Nigeria’s fiscal position, with budget deficits spiraling out of proportion.

As aptly stated by Martin Tisne in a recent piece “Open data can become a powerful weapon in tackling all forms of corruption if the Summit delivers three things: it ensures the right information is reported and released; it ensures effective transmission of data to those who can use it to drive change; and it equips data users with capacity and space to act on that information.” At BudgIT, we see open data as an enabler to a functional Nigeria because if States adopted a more transparent approach to governance, it would help them receive alternative ideas to improve their fiscal outlook.

Last year, BudgIT released the viral “State of States” report and aims to do more work to drive national focus on data from States. We feel Nigeria cannot continue to run its States without extensive open data publication and analyses specifically covering, but not limited to: monthly expenditure commitment; states’ internally generated revenue; state debts; socio-economic and productivity data; sectoral allocations and budgets; extractive revenue data and others.

The impressive combination of reforms and investigative work being carried out by the current government on corruption at the Federal level risks being blighted if States continue to accommodate and/or perpetuate graft within their books in a tightly controlled environment.

President Buhari in his inauguration speech on May 29, 2015, stated that: “Constitutionally there are limits to powers of each of the three tiers of government but that should not mean the Federal Government should fold its arms and close its eyes to what is going on in the States and local governments. Not least the operations of the Local Government Joint Account. While the Federal Government can not interfere in the details of its operations it will ensure that the gross corruption at the local level is checked.”

By these words, Mr President has shown an understanding that fighting corruption in Nigeria without system-wide transparency in States is an exercise in futility. It is therefore time to demand and advocate for an Open Data revolution in Nigeria’s States, as this is the strongest enabler of improved efficiency and service delivery for the millions of hopeful citizens of Africa’s most populous nation.