Accountability in Action: PPDC discusses the hard work of building accountable governance in Nigeria

  05/01/2021

Government transparency and accountability is key to healthy democracy, but building the systems and culture to support this is a long and challenging task. In Nigeria, the Public Private Development Centre (PPDC) has successfully advanced government reforms to increase transparency and elevated the voices of civil society in demanding accountability from their officials.

Nkemdilim Ilo
Chief Executive Officer
Public Private Development Centre

PPDC was recently awarded the prestigious ONE Africa Award, which celebrates African efforts aimed at achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The award recognizes Africa-driven and Africa-led advocacy efforts that have demonstrated success at the community, national or regional level.

As partners on the Promoting Civil Society Participation in Anti-Corruption Efforts in Nigeria (Access Nigeria), PPDC and PartnersGlobal have educated citizens on the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and increased collaboration between citizens and government around open contracting and freedom of information.

The project consortium, which also includes BudgIT, the Cleen Foundation, Partners West Africa Nigeria and New-Rule, are visualizing data to help citizens better understand government budgets; building open budgeting portals; tracking budget expenditures through civic tech tools; advancing whistleblower legislation; partnering with local government to diagnose and address institutional vulnerabilities to corruption; and supporting state governments to implement legislation that addresses corruption in Nigeria’s justice system.  

PartnersGlobal’s Director for Africa and Accountable Governance Muthoni Kamuyu-Ojuolo interviewed Nkem Ilo, CEO of PPDC, to hear her perspective on Nigeria’s gains in transparency and accountability and the challenges that remain.

How have tech tools improved government accountability and transparency in public procurements in Nigeria?

If we think of firewalls as cabinets or buildings, tech tools have removed these firewalls and created opportunities for citizens to access government-held information and data, provide inputs into planning, and advocate for reform.

Tech tools have improved governance and transparency in Nigeria in a number of ways. Firstly, prior to tech tools entering the space, citizens could not readily obtain publicly held data, let alone analyze such data. Nigeria has now signed the Open Government Partnership. The open government movement in Nigeria has motivated government to build its own tech tools A good example is the Open Treasury Portal and the Nigeria Open Contracting Portal. Another example is the Federal Ministry of Budget and National Planning and its presentation of the budget in a way that is understandable to different stakeholders.

On the supply side, civic tech tools used around open budgeting and open contracting have created a feedback loop so that citizens can share their views with government about the budget. This has improved the practice of governance.

Secondly, civic tech tools have enabled civil society to analyze large and complex data sets. Civil society is now able to identify trends in data and understand the “what and why” of the data.

In the present context, where COVID-19 has required government to respond with stimulus and procurement to address health needs, civil society is now able to use the Nigeria Open Contracting Portal to track and monitor the use of COVID-related government funds. This has generated much-needed conversation in the political sphere. People are beginning to raise questions about the past fiscal investments in the health care system. Why is Nigeria’s health system ill-equipped for a crisis like COVID?

“Because of our democracy, organized civil society groups are perceived as equal to government. The Open Government Partnership is a dividend of democracy.”

What are the “democracy dividends” for Nigeria?

Before democracy was ushered in, citizens were simply not able to question government. There was no onus on government to respond to citizens’ concerns or their requests for information. Participatory governance simply did not exist.

Because of our democracy, organized civil society groups are perceived as equal to government. The Open Government Partnership is a dividend of democracy. The process of becoming an OGP country requires co-creation, collaboration, and joint problem solving—very simply put, government is required to listen to a broad range of stakeholders to solve policy issues. That is the definition of democracy!

Because of democracy, the idea that citizens and civil society can request information is seen as a norm and these are enshrined in legal frameworks that exist to promote transparency and accountability, including the Public Procurement Act and various fiscal transparency laws. These developments have definitely generated democracy dividends because citizens have access to data, which they can use to push for reform on issues they care about.  

What are some of the challenges facing Nigeria’s democracy?

Nigeria’s democracy is fraught with challenges. On one hand, the country signed on to the OGP, a multi-stakeholder initiative, and on the hand, other parts of the government are clamping down on activists that led the #ENDSARS movement. There are various truths, untruths, and counter-truths that surround the government’s involvement in the Lekki Bridge massacre.

Similarly, our democracy is significantly stifled by corruption. Government spending is not free from corruption. Very few corruption cases are prosecuted to the full extent of the law and in a way that disincentivizes corruption. At present, the Finance Bill is being discussed. The bill is designed to promote fiscal transparency, but provisions in the bill have raised concerns that it may also weaken the checks and balances that the Public Procurement Act put in place.

These types of developments leave citizens wondering about the extent to which democracy has generated dividends. It is clear the government has made notable investments in transparency and, as a result, a wide range of data is available to citizens and civil society. What is missing is accountability. There is a lack of systemic or institutional incentives to change the behavior of public officials so that they truly are accountable. This is where the focus needs to be, otherwise the benefits of democracy will continue to be uneven.

“Our strategy is to stimulate change in how government operates by recognizing positive things government is doing to open up its processes and information.”

What has made the Freedom of Information Index and Open Government Partnership Index successful in encouraging open government in Nigeria?

Nigeria as a country takes pride in its competitive spirit. We like to be seen as doing better than our counterparts. PPDC’s Open Government Partnership Index and the Freedom of Information Index (administered by a civil society collective) are a direct result of the investment made by the Access Nigeria project, which we implemented jointly with PartnersGlobal.

These indexes have contributed to changing the narrative around the issue of corruption and, in particular, open contracting. Our strategy is to stimulate change in how government operates by recognizing positive things government is doing to open up its processes and information.

Since the launch of the Freedom of Information Index in 2014, we have seen healthy competition emerge between government institutions who actively seek to improve their ranking yearly. For instance, after each year’s ranking, we regularly receive calls from public institutions seeking training and guidance on how to improve their compliance with mandatory disclosure provisions in Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Because of technology and the access that the Freedom of Information Act has provided, we are able to point to data to support public institutions to improve their rankings.  Similarly, the OGP Index has contributed to an increase in states signing the OGP and opening state governments.

“There is more will among civil society to push for government to be more responsive to FOIA requests than there is will within government to be accountable and respond to citizens’ and civil society’s requests for information.”

What are Nigeria’s top challenges regarding freedom of information? What does that mean for the country’s democratic development?

The top access to information challenge Nigeria faces is lagging government accountability. Even though the Freedom of Information Act has been passed and is being implemented, civil society is still facing challenges in obtaining information. Government is slow to respond to requests by citizens or civil society organizations. This is especially true of public institutions in the security sector.

It is possible to interpret the lack of full FOIA compliance by government as a strategy to close or restrict civic space. Government is closing civic space in other ways as well. An example of this is the controversy surrounding the recently passed Corporate Allied Matters Act and also the alleged withdrawal of a civil society organization’s registration for its participation in the #EndSARS campaign.  

At the state level, there still exists confusion as to whether state governments are required to comply with the Federal FOIA. Some states have passed their own FOIA, and in some instances, state public officials are aware these laws exist, while others are not. This presents a challenge for compliance and the implementation of OGP at the state level.

Under OGP, states should be required to comply with existing freedom of information laws (especially where such states are yet to pass their own laws) because access to information is central to opening up government. Total compliance with FOIA requires will on the part of government. There is more will among civil society to push for government to be more responsive to FOIA requests than there is will within government to be accountable and respond to citizens’ and civil society’s requests for information.

How has winning the ONE Award impacted PPDC?

The ONE Award has given us so much visibility and recognition.  This has been very welcomed because an opportunity exists for us to scale what we are doing and advance our central focus of increasing citizen participation around contracting and public procurement and, as an outcome, improve service delivery through citizens’ empowerment.