Weeding out corruption and ending transnational organised crime requires restoring accountability and transparency within all levels of society. Recently, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari visited President Obama at the White House to discuss matters of security, economic development and corruption in the Nigerian government. During his visit, the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, urged President Muhammadu Buhari to assertively tackle corruption in Nigeria. He also advised President Buhari to appoint only “seasoned technocrats” to head key sectors of the economy.
President Buhari made clear to his U.S. government hosts that he would not appoint a cabinet until September, explaining that he needed time to root out corruption before naming his ministers. “The fact that I now seek Obama’s assistance in locating and returning $150 billion in funds stolen in the past decade and held in foreign bank accounts on behalf of former, corrupt officials is testament to how badly Nigeria has been run,” President Buhari recently wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.
Indeed, President Buhari has a large order to fill; public safety and economic progress in Nigeria relies heavily on who he appoints, but most importantly on his commitment to accountability and transparency. However, the weight of this responsibility is not squarely on his or the future cabinet’s shoulders alone. Nigerian citizens and the civil society organizations that represent them have a role to play in Nigeria’s anti-corruption campaign. Collectively, civil society and the public must help identify corrupt practices, gather data to identify holes in the system and develop and implement joint solutions with the government. With proactive and productive partnerships with the Nigerian government agencies and civil society, President Buhari has many willing partners to dismantle the corruption embedded in the Nigerian governance system.
One approach to diagnosing and treating corruption is the development of partnerships between civil society and the Nigerian government agencies, such as those created through the Access Nigeria (AccessNG) project. Working with the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Crimes Commission (ICPC), National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic in Persons and Other Related Matters (NAPTIP), and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), the project has stressed the importance of transparency and accountability within these particular prosecuting agencies, since 2014.
The initiative has trained and deployed twelve civil society groups to develop engagement plans and cultivate positive and productive relations with the four agencies. For example, our partners, the Innovative Strategy for Human Development (ISHD), requested information on cases being prosecuted by NAPTIP to improve their own work on the prevention of trafficking in persons. Despite bureaucratic challenges and delays, ISHD was able to work with the NAPTIP South West regional office in Lagos to collect information on prosecutions in that region. Sustained interaction and trust between the agency and the civil society partner at the regional level made this interaction possible.
Jointly the twelve civil society groups are collecting information about the agencies’ work and assessing the records of convictions and prosecution cases. Our initiative holds numerous prospects but has had its challenges. Recently, AccessNG published a report of our findings for the second half of 2014. Below is our summary of the issues that has caught our attention.
PUBLIC EDUCATION, THE FIRST STEP TO FIGHTING CORRUPTION
When public education and proactive disclosure of information becomes a core part of an institution, citizens are much more capable to participate in priority setting within the decision-making process. With citizens knowledgeable in their governments operations they can hold their government accountable and demand equal treatment and equal justice. The EFCC, charged with investigating and prosecuting economic and financial crimes has a fairly well maintained website where they post frequent updates on their work; this includes press releases with information about new cases filed in courts and their judgements. However, we observed that while general information is provided, specific details for tracking and monitoring cases, such as subsequent adjournment dates and final court hearings were excluded. This makes it difficult for the public, or those of us in civil society, to follow the progression of cases.
In addition, after following up on some of the cases prosecuted by NAPTIP, we found that court records are not easily accessible to the general public. When case records do exist, they often exclude vital information, such as the date of the next scheduled appearance in court, therefore making it difficult to follow up. By reviewing 26 cases prosecuted by NAPTIP in Southwest Nigeria in 2014, we saw that 20 cases were prosecuted in High Courts, while four were in the Court of Appeal, and two cases were before the Supreme Court. Closely analysing the case reports, we found that some of the key challenges to the effective prosecution of cases included the following:
Adjournments: The number of adjournments and the time lapse between cases constitute a major challenge to effective and diligent prosecution. Some of the main reasons for adjournments include: absence of prosecution/defense counsels in court; inability of the court to sit; absence of the accused in court; and pre-trial matters such as bail hearings.
Trials within Trials: Before cases can be heard, a number of issues can arise, such as challenges to court’s jurisdiction, complications in the investigation, and the capacity of the of NAPTIP. This can slow down the process.
Cases against the Prosecutor: While NAPTIP is a leading agency in the prosecution of suspected offenders; there are many cases where the NAPTIP is accused of abusing their power and the rights of individuals. Currently, the trial process for these incidents are conducted within their very own prosecution courts, such cases necessitate the need for a continued deployment of resources from both the prosecution and the defense.
However, because we could only view cases with convictions, rather than all cases during that time period, there is a slant to the data collected. Overall the data of the prosecuting agencies reveal an undue emphasis on the number of convictions in the published case records. Citizens need to know and have the right to access a broader set of information, including the number of new cases and appeals, asset recovery from prosecutions, scheduled court appearance dates for continuous cases etc. Ultimately, by helping citizens know and understand the records and processes of the prosecuting agencies, civil society and the public can begin to build the trust and goodwill necessary to support their efforts.
As difficult as it was for civil society to access court records, retrieving the same information from the prosecuting public agencies proved to be just as arduous and filled with needless bureaucratic processes — in spite of on-going collaboration with the agencies. The Access Nigeria project continues to maintain that increasing citizens’ access to information is crucial for an effective anti-corruption campaign. If the public can follow the agencies’ court cases, both in court and with regular briefings after the court sits, then a garnered interest can be further sustained and deepened through media reports of arrests, commencement of prosecutions and acquittals, or suspect sentencing. In summary, the results of the report from the AccessNG project further emphasize the need for civil society’s continued engagement with these public agencies.
If Nigeria is to benefit from the reforms that President Buhari has promised, corruption must be tackled proactively and weak institutions strengthened. Our evidence and experiences from the AccessNG project indicate that, in at least one of Nigeria’s geo-political zone, there are inadequate staffing levels in the investigation and prosecution departments; additionally, as we found in our review of the 2014 appropriation, the budget allocations of anti-corruption agencies are decreasing, which will undermine the government’s efforts. If we are to truly move forward with a transparent and accountable government, the current administration needs to strengthen these agencies through an increase in funds and staff. Most importantly, the agencies should be more open to the prospect of civil society as partners. Ideally, the first step would be a less bureaucratic system for accessing their data. In turn, civil society can play our role as monitors and collaborators, and together we can improve the system.