Almost a third of Nigerian adults who had contact with a public official between June 2015 and May 2016 were asked to pay a bribe. This is according to a recent survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics. They found that the total bribes paid during that time totaled over US$4.6 billion. Only 3.7% of the people who paid a bribe reported it to official authorities, and of those, 34% saw no follow-up, 20% were advised not to go ahead with the complaint, and 9% suffered negative consequences from reporting.
Nigerian citizens are being discouraged from trying to fight against corruption. Registering a complaint seems futile, risky even, and the scale of the problem can feel overwhelming. In the face of such a vast and seemingly intractable problem, it is vital to re-think how anti-corruption efforts are approached. One of the Nigerian organizations doing this is the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Program (SERAP). SERAP has played a leading role in the long fight for transparency in Nigeria and in building jurisprudence around access to information. SERAP’s committed team of activists, lawyers, and journalists leverages domestic and international human rights law to boost transparency, accountability, and protect social and economic rights. Since its establishment in 2004, SERAP has combined research and advocacy with public impact and strategic litigation to expose corruption and protect the rights of Nigerian citizens.
In re-thinking approaches to fighting corruption, SERAP has decided to focus at the local level where the impact is most directly felt by the citizen — be it money destined for improved hospitals disappearing or services not being delivered. SERAP will work to help ordinary citizens take advantage of the 2011 Freedom of Information Act, which dictates that any person may access or request information in any written form that is in the possession of any public official, agency, or institution. The act also provides immunity to public officers who disclose information in good faith, and expects public institutions to keep organized records to facilitate easy access. It could be a powerful tool for accountability, enabling citizens to shine a light on the often mysterious activities of government. However, most of the general population remains unaware of the law’s existence or is unsure about how to make a request.
Because of the lack of uptake, it is relatively easy for government agencies or corrupt officials to keep evidence of their wrongdoing hidden from public view. Some entities go so far as to claim that the law does not apply to them. This is a major problem particularly with local and state governments.
SERAP plans to address this in several ways. First, SERAP aims to strengthen and enforce the Freedom of Information Act by spreading awareness of the law and teaching ordinary people how to use it, especially to access information about health, education, and water services from local and state authorities. Second, SERAP will provide free and confidential legal advice to citizens who report having witnessed or experienced corruption in their local or state government, including supporting reporters to file Freedom of Information requests so that they can better track the movement of funds. Finally, SERAP will work with those reporting corruption to help them lay formal complaints with anti-corruption bodies and the police, and if necessary, litigate if public agencies refuse to honor their responsibilities under the Act.
In recognition of SERAP’s critical contribution to creating a more open and accountable public sector in Nigeria, and in support of their upcoming work towards bringing the Freedom of Information Act to life, Omidyar Network is pleased to support SERAP with a grant of $240,000.
“Omidyar Network’s support to SERAP is a major boost to our work fighting widespread local-level corruption,” says Adetokunbo Mumuni, Executive Director of SERAP. “This support will allow SERAP to use a combination of action-oriented approaches to draw attention to local-level corruption and promote transparency and accountability in the spending of public resources. We believe this will contribute to improving local residents’ access to essential public services.”
While the public willpower to address corruption in Nigeria is at an all-time high, how to do so remains a puzzle, especially when government agencies are not responsive. De-mystifying the “how-to” and undertaking targeted efforts at building accountability at the point where it matters most to ordinary citizens — health, education, infrastructure at the local level — is important if we are to avoid fatigue and lethargy in the fight against corruption.