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Tackling corruption and promoting transparency in Nigeria

Q&A: Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP)

A recent report on the impact of corruption on Nigeria’s economy by PricewaterhouseCoopers warned that corruption could cost Nigeria up to 37% of GDP by 2030, or around $1,000 per person, if not addressed immediately. SERAP, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, is a Nigerian non-profit that seeks to remedy corruption by advocating for improved implementation of the policy, legislative and legal framework that dictates how public funds are to be spent and how government should be open and held accountable to the public. It is one of the few Nigerian civil society organisations that use public interest litigation to hold government and public officials responsible for corruption, ensure proper service delivery, promote legal reform, and ensure compliance with FOI requests.

We spoke with Kolawole Oluwadare, deputy director of SERAP, about what they’ve learnt and their plans for the coming new year. 

Tell us about how SERAP came about?

SERAP evolved in response to a number of pressing needs; to make the new democracy work for the Nigerian people; to hold the new political class and duty bearers accountable for the management and use of public resources; to defend and promote the rights of Nigerians, especially socio-economic rights and for rights-approaches as the foundation for government planning and service provisions; and to empower citizens to mobilise their active participation in government at all levels. The organisation is now the leading voice in the promotion of socio-economic rights, transparency, and accountability across Nigeria. 

What have been the biggest successes from recent work, and what did they teach you about how to make Nigeria more responsive and accountable to its people?

In the last 12 months, our advocacy, campaigning, and litigation efforts have helped to keep the searchlight on the lack of transparency and accountability in the public sector, and forced government officials and duty bearers to take some measures to address our concerns and deliver public goods. For example, our intervention forced the completion of an abandoned N1.1 billion rural water project in Osun State. Today, over 200,000 residents in the areas can access water. Similarly, because of our advocacy and litigation efforts, the Nigerian government - through the Ministry of Water Resources - rendered account on 292 water projects amounting to billions of naira across the country between 2010 and 2016. 

We also obtained judgment compelling the Minister of Power to compile and make available to SERAP specific names and details of contactors that collected money for electricity projects, but failed to execute them from 1999 to 2018. We secured a judgment ordering the Federal Government of Nigeria to disclose and publish names of looters of public funds from whom over $406 million had been recovered by the Buhari administration. In 2019, our campaign forced the former Senate President to stop the payment of “double pay” to him by the Kwara state government. The Senate President specifically mentioned that he stopped receiving pension from Kwara State immediately after he heard about SERAP’s intervention on the matter.  

More recently, we obtained a landmark judgment ordering the federal government to recover pensions collected by former governors now serving as ministers and members of the National Assembly. The judgement also directed the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice to challenge the legality of states’ pension laws permitting former governors and other ex-public officials to collect such pensions. If implemented, this judgment could save Nigeria billions of naira in taxpayers’ money, which would be available to provide public goods and services to Nigeria. The government has publicly promised to enforce the judgment.

A key lesson from these efforts is that the fight against corruption requires determination, doggedness, persistence, and partnership. In particular, partnership with the media contributed to the success of the water project, while the combination of strategies including campaign, advocacy, and litigation have helped to force the hands of government to disclose public information and take actions to hold government accountable. Our experiences have shown that working in collaboration with the Nigerian people is essential to ensure they see and own the struggle for egalitarian and corruption-free society as their fight, which also increases legitimacy of our effort while also ensuring we enjoy general public support for our work and our staff.     

What is SERAP’s experience of using the courts? Do you see public interest litigation as a powerful lever to advance transparency and accountability in Nigeria? 

Litigation is painstaking and high-risk. But it helps us to establish important precedents as boundaries and standards for government behaviour. Our litigation efforts have resulted in several positive judgments, which have set important jurisprudence for freedom of information and rights of Nigerians to participation. The recent Administration of Criminal Justice Act provides further impetus for effective prosecution of corruption-related cases in Nigeria. Coupled with the rich body of accountability and transparency legislations since the return to democracy in 1999, we believe the environment is ripe for public interest litigation approaches in the fight to enhance transparency and accountability and remove opacity in government activities.  

Do you believe there is a sense of ‘corruption fatigue’ in Nigeria? If so, what can be done to overcome it; how can the people be remobilised to demand accountability from those in power? 

There is consensus among Nigerians about the damage that corruption has wrought on Nigeria and its citizens and socio-economic development. There are, however, differences in views about how anticorruption measures should be implemented and prosecuted. While some support the use of technology and digital reforms to reduce the opportunity for corruption and prevent the incidence, others believe the government must do everything necessary to recover stolen assets and successfully prosecute corrupt officials. 

This divergence is understandable given the widespread impunity and limited success recorded by anticorruption agencies, but it does not amount to corruption fatigue! In fact, most Nigerians believe, just as much as President Buhari, that Nigeria must kill corruption before corruption kills the Nigeria. A 2019 national anticorruption survey by SERAP showed that Nigerians consider anticorruption as an important responsibility for government, which should remain a priority for every administration. However, we believe that a lot more Nigerians must be mobilised to join the fight. 

Some of the ways to achieve this are by creating more awareness about the damage that corruption causes, and enrolling, encouraging, and informing Nigerians at all levels (and in local languages) about the connection between the fight against corruption and public access to public goods and service, i.e. by tackling corruption manifesting in service delivery. In these cases, Nigerians are the direct losers and can be assisted to deploy their “agency” in the fight against corruption. Secondly, there is urgent need to educate and mobilise Nigerians to pledge to ethical behaviour and integrity in public office. Citizens can also be mobilised through support for community actions to demand accountability from local administrators. As more Nigerians are able to obtain accountability at the community level, they are able to build evidence and show to others that it is possible for citizens to successfully extract transparency and accountability from public officials and make government work for the people.  

What are SERAP’s main goals for the upcoming year? 
 With the window of opportunity remaining open as a result of the continuing commitment of the Buhari administration to anticorruption among other priorities, SERAP hopes to continue to lead the effort to promote respect for the Freedom of Information Act and public procurement rule among other critical transparency laws. We will continue to lead campaign and advocacy to tackle corruption in critical public sectors to ensure access of Nigerians to public goods and services. In this regard, we plan to use litigation as a last resort in our efforts. Finally, we plan to continue to educate and mobilise Nigerians including women, young people, people living with disability, community leaders, and students for the fight against corruption. This is based on our conviction that the fight against corruption can only be successful when citizens are sufficiently empowered and mobilised and get involved. 

Luminate is proud to announce a new core grant to SERAP of $500,000 over three years, a renewal of a previous grant to the organisation made in 2017.

Hear from Kolawole Oluwadare, deputy director of SERAP