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COVID-19 Palliatives and efforts of follow the money Tracking

Bukola Afeni

The global health emergency in the guise of Coronavirus, which is also called COVID-19, did not come with the crisis of the deadly pandemic, only.

It also midwived the birth of other variants of economic and social crises, in many countries, across the world. No thanks to the novel virus, a million jobs were lost, even as the global economy is still reeling under the pandemic’s shocking emergence.

To cushion the excruciating hardship of their citizens, not a few countries, unveiled life-bettering welfare schemes, while also providing their citizens with necessary palliatives and basic relief materials.

The Federal Government, following the outbreak of the scourge in the country, announced laudable plans and subsequently distributed cash to vulnerable people in the society, while also providing them with other palliatives.

But for many, passing a camel through the needle’s eye will be much easier, than coming across starkly-impoverished Nigerians, who actually benefitted from the government’s kind gesture.

Contrastingly, the FG itself received huge foreign currencies donated by a coalition of the private sector biggest players in the country, and several international organisations such as the European Union (EU), United Nations (UN), China, the United States and Jack Ma Foundation, and several others.

In order to ensure that the donated funds are properly deployed and judiciously utilized, Connected Development (CODE), like other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs), strongly advocated for a transparent disbursement of the funds.

The clarion call of NGOs like CODE, was certainly not alarmist, especially if the way and manner public funds have been brazenly diverted and recklessly mismanaged by our public servants and politicians, over the years, are taken into consideration.

Recalled that in March, CODE, a leading non-governmental organization, held the Federal Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Health and the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) on their transparency standards.

This followed donations made and interventions rendered to tackle the current pandemic of COVID-19.

According to CODE, trust in Nigerian public institutions have recently been measured by lack of transparency, poor accountability and poor communication.

While commending well-meaning Nigerians and organisations for their generous donations, CODE’s Chief Executive, Hamzat Lawal, noted that although donations have risen to N44 billion, there is no clarity from the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Health on proper collation and disbursement.

He argued that Nigerians must be given comprehensive data of interventions, recipient organisations of this fund and how judiciously they are being expended.

His words: “President Muhammadu Buhari had instructed in his COVID-19 speech that all contributions and donations be coordinated and centralized to ensure efficient and impactful spending.

“We need to know how the Presidential Task Force hopes to effect this and what measures the Ministry of Health, the NCDC and the Ministry of Finance put in place to collect, aggregate funds and ensure proper utilization?

“These are pertinent questions that require timely responses. Now is the time for the government and ministries to champion a culture of transparency, consistency and high-quality communications.”

Lawal disclosed that CODE is utilizing its social accountability platform, www.ifollowthemoney.org, with over 6000 members, and its well-structured community mobilization strategy to advocate strongly for improved healthcare facilities for all, as the nation combats COVID-19.
“These activists are deployed all over the country, and they are currently monitoring COVID-19 funds and palliatives distribution in their various states.

Citizens are provided with online tools to monitor, drive conversation to spark actions and advocate for a transparent and inclusive approach, urging government stakeholders to make public all funds released for the fight against COVID-19 and its implementation plans,” he said.

CODE, whose mission is to improve access to information and empower local communities in Africa, is the architect of “Follow The Money” (FTM) initiative.

FTM helps to advocates and tracks government/international aid spending in health, WASH, and education across grassroots and communities to promote and ensure open government and service delivery.

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, FTM launched a project dubbed #FollowCOVID19Money – a campaign to torch-light and scrutinise the utilization of emergency funds and donations against corruption and abuse in Africa.

The campaign is used to aggregate, analyse data and demand transparency and accountability on COVID-19 funds and donations.

According to Lawal, who is CODE’s Founder, prominent private-sector leaders, in Nigeria, under the auspices of the Coalition Against Covid-19 have donated N27.160 billion (approx. 64 million Euros as of 23rd April).

He said: “In addition, the central bank announced  N1 trillion (approx. 2.4 billion Euros) stimulus package, and then the Federal Government asked the National Assembly to approve  N500 billion (approx. 1.2 billion Euros) intervention fund; it also withdrew $150 million from the Sovereign National Fund and borrowed $6.9 billion from IMF – all purportedly to cushion the effect of COVID-19.”

With a harmonized strategy and engagement process,  Lawal said the FTM movement in Nigeria, Kenya, The Gambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Malawi and Liberia is putting pressures on national and regional/state governments and agencies to transparently account for every penny received for development interventions, and emergency relief, during this global emergency.

“FTM is conducting verification and monitoring of actual disbursements – cash and in-kind transfers to poor and vulnerable populations. FTM is deploying digital solutions to mobilize citizens and engage with authorities on moderation and due diligence on new legislations and executive orders and encouraging collective action in holding governments accountable deploying online and offline engagement and advocacy strategies in concretizing the public on post-emergency recovery postulations and attitudinal responses that would enhance quick healing and recuperation,” he added.

According to the CODE helmsman, campaigning for transparency and accountability on public expenditures in Africa is a dangerous hobby.

He said: “In the field, we have received contradictory figures, incomplete information and at other times outright negligence and threat. Like many other intervention funds (e.g. North East Development Fund in Nigeria), COVID-19 funds are highly susceptible to abuse and corruption.”

The case of another West African nation, Liberia, bores a perfect semblance with that of ours. Despite efforts, checks indicate that Liberia’s government is yet to update the public on the total amount of funds donated to the fight against Covid-19 to date.

To further compound issues, it has also refused to be open about the current health constraints or clearly articulate to Liberians why the death toll is so high compared to countries with far higher numbers of infected persons.

In The Gambia, millions of dollars have been spent on motor vehicles and hotels, whilst identified treatment centres and isolation centres are in dilapidated conditions.

As an underdeveloped country with a high poverty rate, mandatory stay-at-home orders have resulted in record-high unemployment, jeopardized the sustainability of small and large businesses, while citizens are left to their fate.

Back home in the country, the Kaduna State Government, in March, earmarked 500 million Naira for the procurement and distribution of relief materials (foodstuffs) in eight pilots Local Government Areas (LGAs) in the State.

But some residents of Southern Kaduna, during a “Follow The Money Radio Discussion” program, on 7th April 2020, complained that they did not receive such materials, with some of them even saying the whole process lacked transparency.

With the sheer level of secrecy that greeted the disbursement of funds and relief materials across the 36 States, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), conducting a thorough audit remains the only way to unravel how the funds were disbursed, and for what purposes, in the country.

Without mincing words, Follow the Money team, post-COVID, will be doing the entire African continent a great favour by undertaking a comprehensive audit on all the Coronavirus related interventions that have been compiled, while making the results available to the public.

Meanwhile, it behoves on African governments, who have plans to still share relief items and cash, among other palliatives to their citizens, to adopt a unique and transparent model of distribution of relief and other welfare provisions to their targeted populace.

In line with Open Governance Partnership (OGP), civil societies should be carried along in all the processes on the distribution of palliatives, for transparency and accountability sake.

There is a need for African governments to also create toll-free lines for citizens to report red flags noticed during the distribution of palliatives.

In the words of  Lawal, Africa should be looking at COVID-19 as an opportunity to reset its politics, policies, economies and public health systems.

And there is no better way to achieve this, order than African leaders pledging a resolute commitment to mainstream transparency and accountability in public expenditures.

It is the surest way to freeing up money for investment in critical sectors and social development, across the continent.

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