By Promise Eze
Ute, one of the rural communities in Ose local government in Ondo North, located in the South West region of Nigeria, has a dysfunctional primary healthcare center. For many decades, residents of the community, especially pregnant women, have lacked access to quality healthcare due to insufficient physical infrastructure for healthcare delivery. Many sick patients are often referred to the Federal Medical Center (FMC), Owo, about 28.9 km away, where chances of survival, in cases of emergency, are slim.
In 2020, residents in the community jubilated when Senator Robert Ajayi Boroffice representing Ondo North Senatorial District in the National Assembly nominated a project titled “Construction and furnishing of Obstetric center in Ute, Ondo North Senatorial District” to the tune of N100 million. The project was supervised by the National Agency For Science And Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI), Abuja, an agency under the Federal Ministry of science and technology.
But nearly two years since the project was nominated, no construction was done. Obamadeji Sunday, a leader in the community, was shocked when he heard via radio that the project had been implemented, but in reality not even a single piece of the block had been placed on the proposed site of the hospital.
“The senator told me last year about the project and I even heard on the radio that the project has been executed,” Sunday said in an interview.
Also, Chief Olabode Akarigbo, the Olute of Ute kingdom (the traditional leader) disclosed that Senator Boroffice had contacted the community years back to look for a land where the obstetric center would be built, which was provided, but nothing had been done to construct the center.
Mismanagement of Public funds—a disturbing trend in Nigeria
Politicians and government officials’ embezzlement of public funds has been some of the stumbling blocks hindering Nigeria from making progress in recent years. The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2020 report published by Transparency International placed Nigeria as the second most corrupt country in West Africa with Guinea-Bissau as the only country more corrupt than Nigeria in the sub-region.
In Nigeria funds meant for the implementation of constituency projects are sometimes diverted to private pockets. For example, In March 2019, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Nigeria’s anti-graft body, revealed that over US$3.6 billion (1.3 trillion nairas) was stolen from public coffers between 2011 and 2015. Also, an analysis by BudgIT of the 21,108 capital projects in the 2022 approved budget revealed 460 duplicated projects amounting to N378.9billion. Similar discrepancy was seen in the 2021 budget, where it was observed that 316 duplicated projects were inserted into the 2021 Federal government budget approved by the National Assembly. In 2017, the organization exposed a 41 million naira (US$113,575) investment that claimed to be funding a non-existent youth center in Kebbi State.
Several reports have shown that constituency projects have served as conduits for embezzlement, contract fraud, deliberate waste, and the distribution of political patronage to the political elite. And a lack of accountability mechanisms in governance has worsened it over time.
In May 2021, UDEME, a non-governmental organization that preaches accountability, embarked on a trip to Ute community to visit the project site. It was discovered that no work had commenced despite the release of over 50% of funds for the execution of the project. After interacting with members of the community and publishing a report about the situation, Senator Robert Ajayi was pressured to ensure that the obstetric center was constructed and barely six months after the report was published the construction began.
UDEME is a social accountability intervention platform designed to enable citizens to hold the government to account for how funds released for developmental projects are spent. Founded in 2018 by the Center for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), formerly known as Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), UDEME has been monitoring government budgets and spending on public projects to enhance transparency, responsive and responsible government, and democratic accountability. The nonprofit tracks capital, constituency, and ecological projects.
“We do a lot in UDEME and all of this is to be able to Improve transparency and accountability in Nigeria,” said Ijeoma Okereke, the program officer of UDEME in an interview with Social Voices.
In 2019, UDEME received a big boost when it signed a partnership with the Independent Corrupt Practices and Related Offences and other practices (ICPC), one of Nigeria’s leading anti-corruption agencies, to work in collaboration in fighting corruption schemes across the country.
UDEME—How It Works
Periodically, UDEME trains and equips student-journalists who make up the UDEME Monitor (U-Monitor) team— a program that lasts for about six months— on how to monitor, track and report on issues around transparency and accountability in the public procurement space. The team embarks on field trips to monitor the government’s projects in various communities across the country. The outcome of the field trips is dozens of investigative stories published on their website and promoted on social media platforms to raise citizens’ awareness and engage the government and public officials.
“We put out an open call of interest for applications for campus reporters who have a passion for storytelling. We take them on a 3-day training where we teach them data gathering and reporting, storytelling, data analysis, data interpretation, data visualization, stakeholders mobilization and engagement, and even investigative writing,” Okereke said.
The participants of the training are then mobilized with stipends to empower citizens in their communities to become active participants in the democratic process by holding governments (local, state, and federal) to account under an initiative called UDEME Get Involved.
When a U-Monitor visits a community and holds a meeting with community leaders, religious clerics, and other residents he/she educates them on what projects mean; the processes involved in budgeting and implementation of projects; the importance of being aware of projects meant to be implemented in their communities; how to track projects; and how to hold the government accountable for abandoned projects.
Three types of documents are given out in the course of the advocacy. One document contains a list of projects in their respective communities, another is a pamphlet that explains what UDEME is about and why it wants the people to get involved in holding the government accountable. The last is a questionnaire administered to the people to evaluate their knowledge and understanding of projects in their communities.
Aside from the community outreaches, citizens are also sensitized via radio show programs in local languages on how to hold the government to account.
Since it started the U-Monitor program, about 2500 projects have been tracked and 1000 stories have been produced by the students which emphasize gaps in the implementation of public projects such as lack of access to clean water, poor learning facilities in public schools in rural areas and medical facilities for pregnant women despite budgetary allocations for such projects.
One of the students who is currently being trained is Abdulrasheed Hamad, a 400-level undergraduate student studying law at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, Northwest Nigeria. Hammad was shortlisted in February this year among the 2022 U-Monitor under the UDEME project. He told Social Voices that before the training he received from UDEME, he had almost no clue on how to hold the government accountable.
“I can now source for budget and project allocation documents, track government projects, write investigative stories and empower people in the rural areas on how to hold the government officials accountable,” he said.
Hammad claimed he has visited 30 communities in Nigeria, tracking government projects and, sensitizing and enlightening residents of those communities on how to hold the government to account for how funds released for developmental projects are spent.
Hammad, during the UDEME, Get Involved initiative in September this year, visited Nakasarin Ardo community in Gagi, Sokoto South, Northwest Nigeria, where he enlightened the community, religious clerics, businesses men and other residents about the need and importance to hold the government to account.
Social Voices followed his outreach and interviewed some of the participants. During the program, he disclosed to residents that N70 Million was disbursed for the construction of Gagi-Gidan Dilo road and another road in Fakon Idi community. However, the road in Gagi-Gidan Dilo was abandoned while the other was poorly executed. The villagers expressed disappointment over the situation.
One of them, Abubakar Ibrahim, after being enlightened that they have the right to question the government over the abandonment of projects, expressed displeasure over the number of abandoned projects in the community.
“I am very disappointed with how the government treats us here. Just look at abandoned projects everywhere!” he told Social Voices.
“This is a wake-up call for us,” said Muhktar, a businessman residing in the area. “We’re very happy and excited to be enlightened on how to hold the government accountable. Uncompleted government projects are littered all over this community. But now I’ve been enlightened on how to hold the government accountable, and it’s a step forward for me because now I must demand to know why projects meant for these communities remain abandoned,” he added.
Taiwo Fatola, a student of Medicine at the Osun State University, was one of those selected to be part of the U–Monitor project this year. For him being part of the team U-Monitor allowed him to beam a searchlight on what public officers have been up to as far as Intervention projects are concerned.
“I have always known that there are irregularities as far as the execution of these projects are concerned, being a part of the U-Monitor brought me closer to these irregularities as I spoke to the people affected and I could feel their pains,” he said.
Local communities depend on the government or federal lawmakers who represent them to provide basic amenities such as clean water, infrastructure, town halls, community centers, hospitals, and good roads. But in most cases, when these facilities are not provided or started but not completed, many residents are ignorant of how to hold the government accountable because they erroneously think that public funds budgeted for projects in their communities belong to politicians. However, sensitizing and empowering them would make them understand that they have the right to question public officials as to why projects remain abandoned or are yet to be completed in their communities.
Professor Jimoh Amzat, a senior lecturer and social expert at the Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, says abandoned projects are symptoms of corruption but creating awareness for budgets meant for the execution of projects is a step forward in combating gross mismanagement of funds.
“I said that abandoned projects are symptoms of corruption because you’ll always see one particular project commissioned every year. Look at the Ajaokuta Steel Mine! Almost every year there are budgetary allocations to the industry but there’s no improvement or progress. It’s terrible.
“When these budgets are approved, the various agencies involved should simplify the specific processes of executing them for citizens so that there’s public awareness about them.
“Non-governmental organizations should also break down the projects into specifics and make reports about them. Journalists too should not be scared of exposing corrupt government officers,” he said.
But There Are limitations
UDEME’s work has been attracting support and forging partnerships including grants by foreign organizations, specifically the MacArthur Foundation to amplify their work on investigating government projects, but owing to the scope of its projects the lack of sufficient funds is one of the challenges it faces.
“We have a lot of things to do and there are not enough funds. We are a non-governmental organization and we’re always looking for donors to fund what we do,” Okereke told Social Voices.
Language barrier and illiteracy among citizens especially in rural areas is another challenge. Some students sent to mobilize and empower individuals in rural areas may not be fluent in the language spoken in those communities and this will hinder the easy flow of ideas.
Another prominent challenge faced by UDEME is threats from politicians and government officials who may not want their bad doings to be exposed.
“Sometimes you get opposition from the people you are trying to check what they do. They may threaten you sometimes but as much as possible we try to douse situations like this,” she said.
This story was produced in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.