A protest in Abuja last year against the non-removal of judges accused of corruption. Nigeria’s war on graft has been bolstered by the advent of a website to monitor public spending. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
When Onumonu Nonye visited the new laboratory at Ubahuekwuem technical school, she hoped to see busy students surrounded by books and science equipment. Instead, the building stood empty, bereft of desks, doors and even windows. The renovation of the college, in Ihiala, south-east Nigeria, had been abandoned.
Students were heartbroken that their new classrooms had been left unfinished. So too was the headteacher, who was shocked when Nonye told him the company responsible had been paid 25,000,000 naira (£52,601) to complete the work. “They weren’t happy at all,” says Nonye, who works as a procurement monitor for the Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), a civil society group that campaigns for greater transparency about public spending.
In Nigeria – which Britain’s former prime minister David Cameron was once caught on camera describing as “fantastically corrupt” – bribes, inflated prices and abandoned projects are a huge problem.
In her role for the PPDC, Nonye submits freedom of information (FoI) requests to government ministries, asking for details of public contracts. She then visits building sites to check that the work has been carried out. All the information collected is put online through Budeshi, a platform that allows campaigners and members of the public to track whether their local school or health centre has been completed on time.
Budeshi, which has shed light on projects across Nigeria where work has been abandoned despite hefty payments to companies, has helped inspire the creation of a website that promises to publish information from more than 750 government agencies across the country.
Each year, trillions of dollars are spent by governments worldwide on goods and services for public projects. Such contracts, which involve complex plans and substantial funds, provide the perfect opportunity for graft.
According to Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index, Nigeria ranks 136 out of 176 countries, with a modest score of 28 out of 100. “Procurement in Nigeria has been a significant hotspot for corruption,” says Eva Anderson, senior legal officer at Transparency International. “The former head of the BPP [Bureau of Public Procurement] said about 90% of bribes in Nigeria are occurring through contracting – and that figure is not contradicted by any of the research we’ve done.”
Isaac Mokoulu, the BPP’s head of e-government procurement, which is overseeing the new portal, says the project will cut corruption by making it easier for government employees to see if costs and fees have been inflated.
Each project will be given a unique code, allowing campaigners to track progress easily rather than piecing together scraps of information released in varying formats by different departments. “The fantastic thing about this portal is that there’s a feedback mechanism built into it,” says Mokoulu. “Feedback can be as much as saying: ‘Well, the portal is reporting they have had payment up to 70% but what we’re seeing on the project site is still only 20% complete.’” In response, the BPP can send a monitoring team.
The bureau hopes agencies will automatically make information publicly available. But Anderson finds this optimistic, pointing out that the portal is highly unlikely to include any defence and security spending, which is a growing area of concern. Extraction industries have traditionally been a lightning rod for corruption in Nigeria, but falling oil prices and increased efforts to root out fraudulent deals in the sector, together with the war on Boko Haram, have shifted the focus to security spending.
“Defence and security budgets … [are] now consuming about 20% of government spending, and that’s not accounting for ad hoc additional expenditure for the war,” says Anderson. “We’re seeing a shift in the kleptocracy, which is moving across to defence and security contracts to exploit the lack of transparency in that sector.”
It is estimated that former military chiefs have stolen as much as $15bn (£11.4bn) – equivalent to half of Nigeria’s foreign currency reserves – through fraudulent arms deals. While campaigners estimate that roughly 15% of information relating to defence contracts should be classified, in Nigeria all defence spending is treated as such. “Even the rules around classified information are classified,” says PPDC chief Seember Nyager.
High-profile scandals involving the military – including the arrest of Nigeria’s ex-national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, over an alleged $68m fraud – could change attitudes, says Anderson. In 2015, 66 soldiers on trial for mutiny had their death sentences commuted to 10 years’ imprisonment after the court heard the men had been given no weapons to fight Boko Haram because money to buy them had been stolen.
“We need to educate a lot of people, we need to organise training, even at grassroots level. It’s one thing to provide information: it’s another to get [people] to engage,” says Mokoulu.
So far, the BPP has enlisted and trained 40 civil society organisations to use the platform. The bureau is also targeting businesses, which often embrace the project because it will give them more information about the bidding process, says Mokoulu.
Anderson says that, while the scheme is a step in the right direction, there is a danger corruption will simply move elsewhere if all sectors are not covered. Monitoring contract implementation is particularly crucial, she says: “Who tells you that you’ve got the product you tendered? Or that you’ve got the quality you were promised? There have been big problems with suppliers bribing auditors.”
And while some businesses may welcome greater transparency, others won’t, says Anderson. “A lot of people have a lot to lose – and I would expect them to fight back.”