Jide Ojo

Nigerian civil society and the fight against corruption

On January 3, 2020, The Osasu Show on the African Independent Television aired a documentary featuring me and a couple of others on the activities of the Civil Society Organisations in Nigeria. The documentary examined the contributions of the CSOs, as they are better known, to the growth and development of the Nigerian society. The conversation also touched on the allegations of corruption among Nigeria’s civil society organisations.

It is important to avail the readers of the meaning and scope of work of the CSOs. According to Wikipedia, civil society can be understood as the “third sector” of society, distinct from government and business, and including the family and the private sphere. Rachel Cooper of the University of Birmingham, in an article published online on October 15, 2018, said civil society “first became popular in the 1980s and it now signifies a wide range of organised and organic groups including nongovernmental organisations, trade unions, social movements, grassroots organisations, online networks and communities, and faith groups. According to her, civil society groups and networks vary by size, structure and platform ranging from international non-governmental organisations and mass social movements like the Arab Spring to small, local organisations.

Cooper also observed thus: “Civil society roles include service provider (for example, running primary schools and providing basic community health care services); advocate/campaigner (for example, lobbying governments or business on issues including indigenous rights or the environment); watchdog (for example, monitoring government compliance with human rights treaties); building active citizenship (for example, motivating civic engagement at the local level and engagement with local, regional and national governance) and participating in global governance processes (for example, civil society organisations serve on the advisory board of the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds)”.

The CSOs generally work to complement government’s efforts in providing socio-economic services. They bridge the development gap in society by supporting government initiatives in the provision of good governance particularly at the grassroots. Take, for instance, there are hundreds of the CSOs offering humanitarian support services to the Internally Displaced Persons in the North-East Nigeria especially in the BAY states namely Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. I once managed a project by the Forward in Action for Education, Poverty and Malnutrition better known as FACE-PaM in Bauchi State. The NGO works to promote education, health care services and peaceful elections, among others. Through donor funds, FAcE-PaM rehabilitated schools, was involved in getting out-of-school children to school for formal education, campaigns against the spread of HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis and give business starter packs to people in various communities in the North-East.

As a proud member of this community called CSOs where I have been working for over two decades, I am glad to also point out the yeoman efforts of some NGOs in promoting transparency and accountability in Nigeria. Groups like the Centre for Democracy and Development, Nigerian Women Trust Fund, Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre and YIAGA Africa have been doing a lot to promote electoral integrity and credible elections. They closely observe the electoral process and report their findings to the public. As accredited election observer groups, they have jointly and individually done a lot to deepen Nigeria’s democracy. It is on record that YIAGA Africa championed the Not-Too-Young-To-Run campaign ahead of last year’s general election. This resulted in the constitutional alteration that led to the reduction of the age qualification for presidential election from 40 to 35 and those of the House of Representatives and state House of Assembly election from 30 to 25 years.

Organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice, Publish What You Pay coalition, Connected Development better known as CODE, BudgIT, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project and many others have done a lot to partner government in the fight against corruption and open government. These groups analyse government budgets, track budget implementation and development projects and expose corrupt practices in government Ministries, Departments and Agencies. They serve as whistle-blowers and sometimes resort to public interest litigations in order to compel government to act in the interest of the suffering masses.

SERAP, to my knowledge, more than any other groups, has dragged government at all levels to court in order to enforce better governance. Take for instance the organisation’s lawsuit asking state Houses of Assembly that have passed life pension laws for their ex-governors and their deputies to abrogate such laws. This is to promote public good and is highly commendable. BudgIT, through the use of infographic, has over the years been breaking federal and state government budgets down for easy assimilation by the public.  CSJ like CODE has been involved in budget analysis and tracking of implementation of government projects.

Quite unfortunately, while trying to promote the public good, some of the leaders of the civil society have suffered molestation, harassment, frame-up, detention without trials and jail terms. I recall vividly how the CSOs leading lights like Abdul Oroh, Shehu Sani, Ayo Obe, Chima Ubani, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, Uche Wisdom Durueke, Abiodun Aremu, Uche Onyeogocha, Isa Aremu, incumbent governor of Ekiti State, Dr. Kayode Fayemi and many others were hounded into exile, detention, jail or death in the course of their fight for the disannulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election and advocacy for the return to civil rule from the military. These CSO activists who operated under platforms such as the Campaign for Democracy, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Civil Liberties Organisation, and National Democratic Coalition suffered incalculable personal looses while trying to protect human rights. It is noteworthy that in the course of providing succour to the IDPs in the North-East Nigeria, Boko Haram insurgents have abducted and murdered some of the aid workers.

More heart-rending and shocking is the fact that some of the managers of the CSOs who are torchbearers in the fight against corruption have themselves been caught in the web of corrupt practices. Their organisations have been found to have doctored their account books. The phenomenon is called creative accounting where all manner of sharp practices including financial fraud are perpetrated by some NGOs. Many a time, these malpractices are detected by eagle eyed auditors from the donor partners and when such are discovered, the organisation in question is made to refund the misappropriated sums as well as risk being blacklisted from receiving future support from the donor organisations and indeed all other donors.

MacArthur Foundation is one organisation that has been doing a lot to support the fight against corruption and promotion of accountability in governance in Nigeria. In 2018, the Foundation established a Social Influencers Accountability Cohort. I happen to have been enlisted as one of the social influencers. Under this project, I have been involved in awareness creation on accountability and anti-corruption. As part of that initiative, and to commemorate the 30th anniversary of my involvement in media advocacy, I have published my third book with funding support from MacArthur Foundation channelled through Centre for Information Technology and Development. The book entitled, “Nigeria: Corruption and Opacity in Governance”, will be formally presented to the public at an event tomorrow, January 16, 2020 in Abuja. Thereafter, the book will be distributed free to the public.