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How emergency COVID-19 spending rallied open data activists in Nigeria to push for reforms

Tracking funds dedicated to the COVID-19 response. Photo: CODE/Jide Ojediran

In May 2020 Nigeria’s Bureau of Public Procurement adopted guidelines for emergency government spending in response to COVID-19. Independent reviews by ministries and government departments have identified red flags and irregularities in the country’s emergency procurement. Now, new partnerships between government watchdogs, civil society organizations, and investigative journalists are using open contracting data to analyze and investigate the governments’ response, improve the information published, and push for reforms. 

When Nigeria recorded its first COVID-19 case in February 2020, soon after the private sector, the IMF, the World Bank, and the European Union pledged billions of dollars to help the country cope with the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic poses a substantial risk to the country of nearly 200 million people, Africa’s most populous.

As ministries and government departments started shopping for protective equipment and testing kits in early 2020, the Bureau of Public Procurement published emergency procurement guidelines for Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs). The objective was to increase transparency and accountability of emergency spending as regular checks and balances were lifted to fasten the procurement process. MDAs were instructed to publish the data related to emergency spending on the Nigeria Open Contracting Portal (NOCOPO).

But as of June 2020, only five out of more than 150 Nigerian MDAs had published 93 Covid-related contracts worth a total of 2.6 billion Naira (US$6.7 million), according to a review of MDAs’ compliance with the BPP guidelines conducted by Nigerian open data advocate Public and Private Development Center (PPDC). That study found that the data published was not in machine-readable formats, incomplete, and in some cases, omitted vital information. 

Where data was published, details were conspicuous for their absence. One MDA spent 39.3 million Naira (about US$100,000) on face masks, without clarifying how many items were purchased or at what price, according to an investigation by Dataphyte published in Nigerian daily Premium Times. The same story revealed that the Federal Road Safety Commission spent 5,600 Naira (US$15) on single units of 500ml hand sanitizer, nearly twice the local market value. 

The pressure on MDAs to publish more information increased. By November 2020 at least nine MDAs had published 157 emergency contracts. 

The pandemic has led to emergency procurement fiascos across the world, and Nigeria did not escape the debacle. Yet the pandemic has also inadvertently strengthened organizations working for greater transparency and accountability in the fast-developing African superpower. By providing government and civil society with a common goal, collaborations between the BPP and civil society organizations including the PPDC, BudgIT, Connected Development (CODE), Dataphyte, and other organizations monitoring COVID-19 public contracting, have helped strengthen accountability. 

“Open contracting has positively evolved in the country with governments at all levels, and corresponding increased participation from civil societies, which has stimulated results on disclosure and accountability — as seen with the BPP COVID-19 guidelines,” says Ifeoma Onyebuchi, Program Lead at PPDC. 

The data on NOCOPO has allowed watchdogs to reveal how MDAs are following, or often breaking, national guidelines on procurement. The data’s very existence has spawned more vigilance. The progress has also created a demand for more tools, capacity building, and institutional collaborations, adds Onyebuchi.

PPDC publishes user-friendly breakdowns of the data on Budeshi, a dedicated web platform that links budget and procurement data to various public services using the Open Contracting Data Standard. Budeshi has published and reviewed details of more than 10,000 MDA contracts worth a total of more than 226 billion Naira (approximately US$591 million in February 2021) since 2014. 

In addition to the data published by NOCOPO, open data advocates in Nigeria also have access to data published by the National Open Treasury Portal (OTP). The government portal is an effort to increase transparency around how taxpayer revenue is spent and mandates all MDAs to publish transactions above 5 million Naira (approximately $13,000).

Some users of the Treasury portal’s data have lamented its shortcomings. “Since the launch in December 2019,” argues Dataphyte, “MDAs and the office of the Accountant General of the Federation continue to frustrate the essence of the platform with nebulous transaction details and inadequate description of payment.” 

Another Dataphyte investigation reportedly found that more than 1,000 payments by state-affiliated organizations failed to provide a simple payment description, amounting to 173 billion Naira (approximately US$450 million) worth of payments between January and April 2020.

Despite the shortage of standardized data, or perhaps because of the need for continued vigilance, the procurement ecosystem in Nigeria has grown in the shadow of the virus. BudgIT Foundation – a civil society organization that simplifies government budgets and tracks government projects – and Connected Development – a convener of #followthemoney in Nigeria, in partnership with Global Integrity – kicked off a COVID-19 Transparency and Accountability Project to track the funds dedicated to the COVID-19 response. Their campaign advocates for better value for money in seven African countries through social audits of the COVID-19 intervention funds.

Both organizations also joined the #Account4COVID movement across Africa, driven by similar advocacy organizations in Southern and East Africa such as Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM), Africa Freedom of Information Center (AFIC), and Accountability Lab. CODE’s #FollowCOVID19Money project even involved town hall meetings geared at educating citizens to track COVID relief funds. 

Collaborations between procurement watchdogs, civil society monitors, and investigative media continue to reveal corruption, fraud, and malpractice in public procurement. A simple Freedom of Information request in one instance revealed how a ministry manipulated published procurement data. The Federal Ministry of Water Resources tampered with a published contract worth 325 million Naira (approximately US$850,000) on the NOCOPO website following an information request from Dataphyte, according to a data review by the latter. 

The Ministry of Health also came under scrutiny based on irregularities in data it had published on the procurement portal. An investigation by the International Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered that the ministry had paid companies up to four times the local market value for infrared thermometers. The contracts had been awarded without any competitive bidding process to unregistered companies and government institutions that violated the BPP procurement guidelines. Another investigation by Nigerian NGO Civic Hive alleged mismanagement of funds and overpricing in the awarding of contracts at the Ministry of Health. 

Going beyond emergency procurement, local stakeholders are clear that the procurement ecosystem needs to grow stronger. Open data organizations and transparency advocates stressed the need for more capacity building for MDA procurement agents, as well as for non-state actors involved in monitoring. “What is needed is more capacity building for public servants to understand how to publish procurement data, as well as more coordinated engagement and empowerment of the journalist and civil societies community to use the available data,” Joshua Olufemi of Dataphyte and Saied Tafida of Follow Taxes told Open Contracting Partnership. 

Several specialists emphasized the need for the NOCOPO platform to publish more timely, complete, and usable data in order for transparency advocates to be able to monitor procurement ‘live’. 

A vibrant open contracting community in Nigeria can continue to blossom as long as civic actors continue to demand accountability, transparency, and open contracting. Reform must also come from within the system, say Oluseun Onigbinde of BudgIT and Ijeoma Oforka of CODE: “The government must be ready to enforce laws to sanction MDAs who do not adhere to the requirements or instituted guidelines.” 

As Nigeria moves toward implementing a fully digital e-procurement system, and continues to address data quality and coverage issues, the new partnerships emerging from the pandemic seem to have provided a renewed sense of purpose for all actors. It has made crystal-clear that publishing open data matters for an effective response, as well as shown the constructive role civil society organizations and the media can play in monitoring scarce government resources. 

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We remain committed to supporting civil society and the media in monitoring public contracts, and government at the state and federal level in their open contracting efforts to publish open data on public procurement through the Open Contracting Data Standard.