…in these times in which public trust in government and governance is at an all-time low, with public officials and institutions becoming the butt of countless jokes and derogatory hashtags, the onus is on government to do the responsible thing to earn back the trust of the populace, to become a hybrid of a representative and participatory government.
It is no longer news that the novel coronavirus (which causes the disease known as COVID-19) has changed the landscape of the world as we know it. That COVID-19 and its effects on our economy, political, social and cultural life will remain for a long time to come is not in doubt. What is of interest to me is how countries and state governments are responding and running a race against time to procure goods, works and services to tackle the virus head on, to control and eradicate the disease, as well as provide for the health and wellbeing of their citizens and residents.
The race for emergency procurements for basic health supplies such as masks, protective equipment, gloves and other major health devices such as ventilators, cannot be overemphasised, given the state of health care services around the world and especially in Nigeria.
However, while advocating for the benefits of emergency procurements in the public sector, there is no better time to sound the alarm against the pervasiveness of corruption in the public procurement process. This alarm is more important in the context of countries like Nigeria that has a history of being bedeviled by corrupt practices, contract fraud, poor infrastructure and weak service delivery.
The public procurement process in Nigeria is guided by the Public Procurement Act, 2007. Section 43 of the Act provides that emergency procurement can be deployed in several instances, one of which is when ‘the country is either seriously threatened by or actually confronted with a disaster, catastrophe, war, insurrection or Act of God’. Public procurement under the COVID-19 situation clearly falls under such instance. The Section further requires emergency procurements to take into consideration the principles of accountability, alongside expedition.
With more countries around the world racing to implement their emergency procurement procedures or enacting emergency legislations to meet gaps, it is important for attention to be paid to how these procurements are being carried out. Are the procurements fair and with value for money? Are the principles of accountability and transparency being given due prominence in the procurements?
Coming home to Nigeria, it is very disconcerting to find that there is little to no information on what procurements are currently ongoing, what agencies are doing the procurements and how much has being released thus far. This is particularly worrisome given Nigeria’s history in the public procurement and contracting sector.
Transparency International recently published an alarm from 13 of its national chapters across Latin America over the corruption risks prevalent in emergency public procurement processes ongoing in the region. Some of the prevalent risks include price gouging, conflicts of interest, political patronage, etc.
Given the above, there have been several suggestions on how to mitigate the risks of corruption and improve transparency in how government procures during this time. One particularly interesting suggestion in this regard has been the open publication of contracting information. This suggestion encourages governments to uniquely identify all COVID-19 contracts and openly disclose information about them.
Several governments have taken up this suggestion. For example, in Ukraine, ProZorro categorises and publishes all COVID-19 related emergency procurement. This public disclosure gives both citizens and interested persons the opportunity to follow, monitor and report any infraction relating to these contracts. A similar initiative is also being undertaken in Paraguay.
Coming home to Nigeria, it is very disconcerting to find that there is little to no information on what procurements are currently ongoing, what agencies are doing the procurements and how much has being released thus far. This is particularly worrisome given Nigeria’s history in the public procurement and contracting sector. Several interpretations could be adduced for the virtual silence in this sector: (1) Nigeria’s healthcare sector is well equipped to deal with COVID-19 and thus no emergency procurement is necessary. This is a highly improbable interpretation, given the state of our healthcare facilities and the billions of Nigeria being requested to tackle the effects of COVID-19. This point is further underscored by the statement, attributed to the secretary to the government of the federation, Boss Mustapha, on the inadequacy of our healthcare system.
(2) Public disclosure of contracting information is not a norm of the Nigerian government and thus there is no immediate urgency to disclosing COVID-19 procurements.
In the absence of the federal government willingly publishing its COVID-19 related emergency procurements, where then can Nigerians go to monitor and ensure that due process is complied with and taxpayers’ moneys are being used in an effective manner?
This is a more likely scenario. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that despite the introduction and development of a public disclosure contracting platform, the National Open Contracting Portal (NOCOPO), no agency of the federal government is currently publishing up-to-date and user friendly data on procurement and contracting in the country. Despite the big push by President Buhari at the London Anti-Corruption Summit in 2016 and the issuance of a circular by the secretary to the government of federation mandating publication via NOCOPO, compliance by the federal government ministries, departments and agencies have largely being in the default. This gives me cause to wonder at the institutional power of the federal government and whether there exists a will to opening government expenditure to public scrutiny.
In the absence of the federal government willingly publishing its COVID-19 related emergency procurements, where then can Nigerians go to monitor and ensure that due process is complied with and taxpayers’ moneys are being used in an effective manner? A most likely scenario will be the scramble for Freedom of Information requests, initiated by civil society organisations and other public interest groups, to request for information on the public procurement process. While this may provide useful information, it is dependent on the willingness of the MDAs to comply with this, which could be further prolonged by a recourse to the litigation system. Again, the shutdown of government agencies at this time would also contribute to a lack of response to the FOI requests. All of these would be instrumental to a retroactive system of checks and balances and ensuring that transparency is the watchword during these procurements. Where there are any failings in the procurement processes, it may already have been too late for any immediate corrective action to be taken. The question remains, why should the Nigerian government not proactively disclose contracting information and especially in these times?
I will conclude by responding that in these times in which public trust in government and governance is at an all-time low, with public officials and institutions becoming the butt of countless jokes and derogatory hashtags, the onus is on government to do the responsible thing to earn back the trust of the populace, to become a hybrid of a representative and participatory government. The first step, in addition to all other first steps, is to proactively curate and publish information on all COVID-19 related incomes (gifts, grants, in-kind contributions and public funds) and expenditures. This would work towards creating a space for respect and togetherness in an otherwise distrustful and politically distant country.
Nkemdilim Ilo is the chief executive officer of Public and Private Development Centre.