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Bolstering citizen engagement in Nigeria to combat corruption

Erin K. Fletcher, Laura Keen, Mario Picon   |   July 22, 2021   |   Comments

Our work in Nigeria has two overarching objectives: address knowledge gaps for better design and implementation of anti-corruption programs; and enhance local actors’ understanding of dynamics behind limited success of efforts to reduce corruption in Nigeria.”

A story of overcoming apathy and building trust

When R4D and Brookings started scoping countries where our joint initiative, Leveraging Transparency to Reduce Corruption (LTRC), could be useful, our team thought about where to focus our efforts — and Nigeria was one of the countries we considered first. But it was also a choice that posed a few tough questions for us. We wanted to know how our work could add value and support the work of governance and anti-corruption champions in the country, per our mission.

In Nigeria there are many homegrown and international initiatives working to improve governance and reduce corruption — from legal frameworks on the allotment of exploration licenses, to civil society organizations clarifying and publishing budgets, to grassroots organizations helping community members to contact their legislators.

As a testament to the large number of initiatives, the common perception we encountered as we started speaking to folks was that corruption (reflected in both administrative corruption and state capture) was endemic in Nigeria.

Whether driven by the somewhat cliched, but very real “resource curse” — Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa — or some other cause, corruption underscores many aspects of life.

We were told stories and handed reports and data about corruption at every stage of the natural resource value chain. Perhaps more important to our work, people shared that corruption and its associated effects infest even the most banal of interactions between the state, oil companies, other private industry, and citizens.

Most distressingly, we heard a sense that the situation was stuck, that it simply would not change — it was part of the fabric of society.

We realized that shifting this perspective was key if many of the organizations we spoke with were to achieve their goals. Directly or indirectly, most organizations working to promote good governance and to prevent or reduce corruption seek to augment the direct engagement of concerned citizens and communities, and thus are predicated on the idea that citizens believe their efforts and those of others can promote change.

Success comes when compromised public officials, businesses, or local leaders reverse course or respond in good faith to the threat of public shame, prosecution, losing customers, or losing elections. This accountability is particularly needed in environments with limited rule of law.

A key underlying assumption of these organizations is that they can change the public’s perception about the possibility for change, or perhaps encourage public participation despite apathy or a low probability of success.

But let’s say citizen engagement in the promotion of good governance is limited. In that case when knowledge of irregularities in the management of public finances or contracts comes to light, the incentive for public officials and other parties involved to change their behavior remains low.

LTRC is certainly not alone in identifying this apathy towards anti-corruption efforts from civil society or government as a key barrier to their success. Recent research in Nigeria from the Anti-Corruption Evidence consortium at the University of London found that, far from galvanizing the public to act, messages on the pervasiveness of corruption deter citizens who already believe corruption is pervasive from fighting back. Researchers documented similar findings in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, and Mexico.

The focus of our collaborations with local partners is on what to do about this challenge. We have developed an evolving research portfolio to support civil society in its anti-corruption efforts. We acknowledge that this problem cannot be solved overnight. Instead, it will require a sustained and concerted effort to counter decades of erosion of the social contract. Ultimately, we aim to provide local stakeholders with the knowledge and tools to overcome apathy toward their efforts and the possibility of change.

Thus, our work in Nigeria has two overarching objectives:    

1. Address knowledge gaps for better design and implementation of anti-corruption programs.

We asked our partners in Nigeria to share the parts of their work that could benefit from more evidence, to share with us the questions they had not had the time to answer. From this line of inquiry, clear lines of research emerged.

With Enough is Enough, a coalition of good governance groups, we are testing the efficacy of distinct methods of storytelling to educate citizens about ways they can hold their government accountable.

We are supporting BudgIT Nigeria under the #FixOurOil initiative to experiment with alternative forms of data visualizations to enhance the public’s understanding and engagement with complex budgetary information.

Finally, in coordination with media outlet Premium Times, we are investing in research to build journalists’ capacity to report on natural resources and to explore effective methodologies for holding government actors accountable, particularly in cases involving corruption.

2. Enhance local actors’ understanding of dynamics behind limited success of efforts to reduce corruption in Nigeria.

Through our work in Nigeria, we aim to shed light on the implementation gaps that can thwart existing initiatives from having success. Fundamental to this is the ability either to rebuild trust in anti-corruption efforts or to design programs with this context in mind.

During LTRC’s formative research, many individuals highlighted fuel subsidies as critical to reform to improve governance of Nigeria’s extractives industry. Yet, one obstacle is resistance from key actors, particularly organized labor in urban areas. Thus, in collaboration with Ujeengo Nigeria, we are engaging labor union members to understand how they form their viewpoints about the subsidy and to find ways to enroll them as champions of reform.

We are working with BudgIT to research the status of beneficial ownership and open contracting initiatives as instruments to combat state capture, and to train civil society in the Niger Delta to advance these reforms.

Finally, as part of our global-level research, we are working with Global Integrity to understand the implementation gaps that frustrate transparency efforts, with Nigeria as one of the case studies.

Looking ahead

To incentivize co-creation and promote broad coalitions of change, we plan to introduce a community of learning in the country in late 2021. This community will regularly discuss challenges in extractives governance and propose solutions, sharing knowledge between the international community and Nigeria’s civil society, academia, and government.

The initiatives featured here reflect our commitment to the people of Nigeria fighting passionately against corruption in natural resource management. We hope this work, as well as the outcomes of our ongoing research, serves to sustain engagement and coordination among these tireless actors.

If you or your organization is interested in rebuilding trust and credibility in anti-corruption efforts, we want to hear from you! Contact us through our social media platforms using the hashtag #leveragingtransparency. Help us build the next phase of our work in Nigeria.

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