Open Government Partnership: Nigeria’s Chance to Stop Merely Reacting to Corruption, By Achonu and Akinbo

One of the fastest ways to move Nigeria from being a country that often has to react to corruption is to implement the OGP; strictly adhere to the agreed implementation process and timelines, keep CSOs in the loop – treating them as equal partners with an equal stake in the Nigerian project – and aggressively engage with citizens at strategic points in time.

Depending on what prism you choose to view the past few weeks from, anti-corruption – or corruption – has hogged the spotlight within Nigeria and in climes with socio-economic similarities to Nigeria.

At least USD$800,000 in local and foreign currencies was seized in anti-corruption raids on houses belonging to judges of the Supreme, Appeal and High Courts. These pre-dawn operations, carried out in the early days of October, have since morphed into a dragnet, with the number of implicated judges now put at 15, all of whom are being investigated by Nigeria’s State Security Service for alleged corrupt practices. Amid a groundswell of both support and outrage from the public, President Buhari has said these actions are “specifically targeted at corruption and not at the judiciary as an institution,” due to “a convergence of views that the country has a corruption problem that needs to be corrected.”

Four days later, the UK, a known haven for proceeds of financial crimes committed, and allegedly committed, in Nigeria announced its Criminal Finances Bill, which provides for “unexplained wealth orders.” These orders will confer relevant UK agencies with the legal might to force owners of asset (including landed property and belongings) worth over £100,000 to explain how they obtained the funds to purchase these. Nigeria has an unfortunate connection to the outcome of this bill becoming an Act; the law will cover politicians and public officials, and Nigeria has several past and serving officials accused of laundering illicit wealth in the UK – notable is ex-governor James Ibori – serving prison terms in London.

More urgently, in the next few days, a high-powered delegation from the Open Government Partnership (OGP) will be in Nigeria to hold a cabinet-level meeting with the Nigerian government and engage civil society stakeholders in the OGP process. This delegation, led by Sanjay Pradhan, the CEO of the OGP, will include members of the global steering committee and support unit of the Partnership.

Launched in 2011 by US President Barack Obama, the OGP Initiative was initially adopted by a cohort of eight countries, which has grown speedily to a current tally of 70 countries.

The OGP encourages the implementation of measures that foster good governance and also bridge the gap between citizens and the government. Accordingly, many countries are striving to attain OGP status, due to the local, regional and international advantages bestowed on the comity of nations that collaborate under the OGP.

Therefore, this visit by the OGP team is significant, confirming Nigeria’s status as a priority target in the quest for citizens participation in governance and the fight against corruption in sub-Saharan Africa. The event also marks the beginning of the implementation of a commitment made by President Buhari during the London Anti-Corruption Summit in May and is aimed at getting the endorsement of senior government officials towards Nigeria attaining greater pre-emption of corruption. President Buhari has gone on the record about his government’s goal of institutionalising existing and new anti-corruption efforts using the OGP.

In June 2016, when Nigeria’s Minister of Justice wrote to the global body to declare Nigeria’s intent to join, it was clear that Nigeria was already ahead of her sub-regional and continental peers. We have a robust Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (NEITI) process – hailed as one of the world’s best — and a hard-fought Freedom of Information Law, which went from a decade of languishing in parliament to being passed and is now enjoying steady uptake rates.

Through the implementation of Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) to assist the government in monitoring public procurement, the government is committed to adopting approaches and initiatives that could strengthen the existing strategies channeled towards tackling corruption within the procurement process.
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Challenges however persist, concerning how active citizen participation in governance can be initiated, and sustained. The OGP deliberative process hopes to tackle this, amongst other things, by bringing every stakeholder to the table.

For the first time, government, civil society and the private sector will sit together to appraise the current milestones and successes that retard and advance the anti-corruption efforts; proffer solutions, design bespoke implementation plans, set timelines and collaboratively monitor implementation.

At this stage, the government has outlined some issues it hopes to tackle. The government has committed to ensuring transparency around the ownership and control of business in Nigeria, especially in the oil and gas sector, through the establishment of a public Beneficial Ownership Register. Through the implementation of Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS) to assist the government in monitoring public procurement, the government is committed to adopting approaches and initiatives that could strengthen the existing strategies channeled towards tackling corruption within the procurement process.

Immediate Benefits Await Nigeria

In line with the global precedent set by the OGP, Nigeria can expect to rise from this distinguished colloquium confident in her commitments and able to effect efficient implementations that will expose corruption loopholes, as well as ensure those found guilty of corruption in public procurement have little or no prospects of winning new contracts. It is widespread knowledge that a key area where corruption breeds within the country is in the procurement process and the implementation of the OCDS and the Beneficial Ownership will ensure that public funds stop going to pockets of corrupt contractors.

A case in point is Mr. Dan Etete, who served the Abacha regime as Minister of Petroleum between 1995 and 1998. Using a fictional character, Etete registered Malabu Oil & Gas Ltd on April 24 1998 then awarded an Oil Prospecting License (OPL) 245 to Malabu Oil & Gas Ltd using his discretionary powers as Minister and without following due process via competitive bidding.

At the time the license was awarded, Etete failed to publicly disclose his ownership of Malabu Oil & Gas Ltd, and his company paid only $2 million of the $20 million legally required license fee for OPL 245. Shell and Eni paid $1.1 billion for OPL 245, with about $800 million going Malabu Oil & Gas Ltd and $300 million going to the Nigerian government. This was a huge loss of revenue to the Nigerian people, only achievable due to the opaque and controversial circumstances that characterise most governments at all levels.

The Etete case is rampant, particularly in the oil and gas sector in Nigeria, where people have been awarded licenses because of their positions in government, proximity to government or by virtue of merely being related to senior government officials.

Our country must move from being one that has to chase the purveyors of corruption months, years and decades after their actions have eroded the dignity of ordinary Nigerians, to a country that installs processes and systems that prevent corruption from taking root within our agencies, ministries, states and neighbourhoods.

Utilising the Open Government Partnership process will completely change our approach to fighting corruption. One example of several that excites us is the Beneficial Ownership Register. Already being implemented in the United Kingdom, this register mandates that the final beneficiary of proceeds from a company or transaction are clearly identified before the award of a contract, license or lease. Should Nigeria adopt the OGP, measures like this will ensure the Malabu scandal or its likes never happen again.

However, implementation is never smooth-sailing; this is often hindered by governments’ inability to honour the equal partnership ideology between them and the civil society, as provided for within the tenets of the OGP, creating an inoperable environment for civil society organisations to function and collaborate towards developmental goals. Another impeding factor pertains to the lack of political will by governments to fully implement the same commitments they have made.

Also necessary to Nigeria’s success at OGP uptake is that citizens are well equipped with knowledge of the OGP itself to demand implementation performance and ensure government delivers on its commitments to the socioeconomic environment that tangibly impacts on the citizenry.

Given these scenarios, it is safe to assume that the best plans can go wrong in Nigeria; but time and again we have seen far more examples where individuals and institutions in this country have put our best foot forward and achieved the sterling results hailed and adopted all over the world. We are certain Nigeria is capable of successfully implementing the OGP process in a way that will benefit Nigerians.

One of the fastest ways to move Nigeria from being a country that often has to react to corruption is to implement the OGP; strictly adhere to the agreed implementation process and timelines, keep CSOs in the loop – treating them as equal partners with an equal stake in the Nigerian project – and aggressively engage with citizens at strategic points in time.
President Buhari famously said the situation is one where Nigeria would either have to kill corruption, or allow corruption to kill her.

Our country must move from being one that has to chase the purveyors of corruption months, years and decades after their actions have eroded the dignity of ordinary Nigerians, to a country that installs processes and systems that prevent corruption from taking root within our agencies, ministries, states and neighbourhoods.

With the OGP National Retreat on October 24, 2016 in Kaduna, Nigeria has the chance to take a globally endorsed step in this direction. The legacy this government will bestow on Nigeria by becoming a full-fledged member of the OGP is one that will outlive us all, and propel our country to more seats within global anti-corruption networks. The ball is therefore in President Buhari’s court; let us kick out corruption via the tested means of institution-building and active citizenship.

Stanley Achonu, the Operations Lead at BudgIT and Coordinator of Open Alliance Nigeria, can be reached on twitter at @Stan_Achonu, while Abayomi Akinbo, the Project Manager at BudgIT who manages the Access Nigeria Project for BudgIT, can be reached on twitter at @Akintonmide.

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