AYODEJI ROTINWA writes that the anti-corruption war of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led government has gone onlineâ€¦
Nigeriaâ€™s fight against corruption may be getting new citizen recruits thanks to Report Yourself, a web platform that allows Nigerians report instances of everyday bribery and graft.
Report Yourself is the brainchild of the United States Diplomatic Mission to Nigeria and local religious leaders in collaboration with non-governmental organizations who cumulatively have over forty yearsâ€™ experience in anti-corruption work as well as securing the economic and social rights of the Nigerian citizen.
The religious leaders are of an inter-faith body called the Religious Leaders Anti-Corruption Committee that have apparently assigned themselves a very specific task.
The Report Yourself website was developed by civic organization, BudgIT, which has been leading the charge for a few years in using tech tools to raise standards of transparency and accountability in government. The platform is funded by the United States Department of Stateâ€™s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.
In April 2017, Ibrahim Magu, acting Chairman of the countryâ€™s anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission reported that the agency had recovered the sums of N521,815,000.00, $53,272,747.00, Â£122,890.00, and â‚¬547,730.00 through its Whistleblower Policy.
Report Yourself has no such grand ambitions.
â€œWe hear of billions of dollars missing but the question we forget to ask is: where did the officials involved in all this, start? They started from petty corruption. They were once low level civil servants, politicians. It was only natural that when the money was bigger, they would steal more.â€ Stanley Achonu, Operations Manager, BudgIT said in a press conference announcing the platformâ€™s launch.
Report Yourself offers Nigerians the means to report the kind of petty corruption Achonu refers to.
Making the report itself is simple. The prompt, â€˜Report a Bribeâ€™ appears in a foreboding red tab, the first thing your eyes are drawn to when you log on to the web page. The complainant is then asked to fill details of what Nigerian state the bribery incident occurred in, what exactly was demanded, who was making the demand, where and when they made it. The area of government or law enforcement agency that sought this bribe is also to be indicated.
Was it at the Federal Road Safety Commission that has designed an impossibly cumbersome, time-consuming driver licence acquisition process that its officers take advantage of, demanding bribes from applicants in exchange for saving their time? Was it the electricity and power supply agencies who have been alleged to inflate bills, cut off supply when citizens canâ€™t pay them and then demand bribes to reconnect electricity?
Complainants also need to include dates in the report and the exact amount that was demanded from them.
They have the option to turn in their report anonymously.
Report Yourself will then measure and track these reports and when patterns and high frequencies of graft reports have been identified, it will deliver its findings to the leadership of the agencies who have been reported against, recommending solutions. The platform has the buy in of and will be working in conjunction with relevant security agencies such as the Police Force, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.
Achonu explained that the aim of the platform is not to crack corrupt eggs but to provoke institutional reform and change where structures (or lack thereof) that enable corruption are eliminated. For instance, if power supply agencies adopted an automated system where citizens paid a transparently calculated sum for the power they use and can purchase power according to the amount they wish, there will be no human interference of bogus bills and resulting avenues for bribery.
The costs of interference though are usually hard to measure. How does a bribe for power supply or to obtain a driverâ€™s licence really affect lives?
US Charge dâ€™ Affaires, David Young also speaking at the press conference put it in perspective with a short hypothetical story:
Olufemi, a taxi driver is saving to send Tosin, his son to school. His licence expires. He tries to renew it. He cannot pay more than the N7, 000 it is supposed to cost. He is asked to pay a bribe (N20, 000) which he cannot afford. He waits in line for several days to get it renewed. He soon cannot wait any longer as heâ€™s losing money not driving, stuck at the license office. He continues driving, unlicensed. One day, he is stopped by the Police. He is unable to pay the fine (N10, 000) for driving without a license. He is jailed. He eventually has to pay N125, 000 to be released on bail. This is the lump sum he has been saving to send his son to school plus money borrowed from family. Eventually, his son has to hawk to help make ends meet. Olufemi has also lost his car and means of income trying to pay debts.
â€œBecause of Olufemi and Tosin, the fight against corruption is important. Corruption is not a victimless crime. I hope that Report Yourself starts a new movement in citizen engagement and I hope every Nigerian who is affected by corruption will feel empowered to share their experiences,â€ Young said.
Youngâ€™s story is the reality of many everyday Nigerians. But hope is not a strategy.
Nigeria is a mobile first nation according to the 2017 Jumia White Paper on Mobile Trends, meaning most will access Report Yourself via their smartphone. However, the average price of internet-enabled smartphones according to the paper is $117 (N40, 950, at current exchange rate and double the national minimum wage) According to an Alliance for Affordable Internet Case Study, (A4AI) the average mobile broadband plan costs $13, which accounts for 13 per cent of the average monthly income of a Nigerian.
People like Olufemi who are most vulnerable to the costs of corruption literally cannot afford to report it. Lead Partner, BudgIT, Seun Onigbinde however revealed, at the press conference that the platform will at a future time have a cheaper SMS report option. A text costs N4.
A few engaged citizens however reckon that still this wonâ€™t be enough, that the platformâ€™s offer of solutions is countered by critical challenges.
â€œThe website could work in theory but it depends on a rationality that sometimes doesnâ€™t exist. It would work in a country like Rwanda with a higher literacy rate,â€ says Jola Ayeye, a writer, alluding to the platformâ€™s relative sophistication. Ayeye is an outspoken critic of the government who once single-handedly raised millions of Naira for Internally Displaced Persons. There have since been reports that funds released by the Federal Government for IDPs care has been diverted for personal gain.
â€œThere needs to be a human element. You know those toll free lines you can call to get customer service from banks that has an option in Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo? It needs to have that. The SMS option takes literacy for granted,â€ she explained.
The working language of Report Yourself at the moment is English. There is no express indication that it has capacity to process reports in local Nigerian languages.
It also presumes its user can write.
â€œI donâ€™t see it taking off outside urban centres and even then it seems it would be mostly inaccessible to poor people who are by far the most at risk of exploitation by state agents. They canâ€™t afford internet data,â€ says Timehin Adegbeye, a social justice activist and a fierce advocate for the rights and the inclusion of the urban poor.
â€œAs a heat mapping tool, I think it is great.â€ She concedes, in reference to the platformâ€™s intention to track concentration of reports.
Report Yourselfâ€™s inaccessibility to the critical mass of Nigerians â€“ who are not tech savvy, can afford data nor speak or write fluent English – might not be its only hurdle.
â€œHow would the platform separate real from false or frivolous complaints especially when they are made anonymously?â€ asks Bade Ayoade, a corporate counsel.
Ayoade, Ayeye and Adegbeye while thinking out loud about the platform all spoke about it with some distance. None indicated they would have use for it.
Potential challenges notwithstanding all parties are counting on the inclusion of the religious leaders to galvanize Nigerians into the fight against corruption.
â€œNigerians look up to them as leaders to fill the vacuum we have in our political leadership. Also, they wield a lot of influence. The leadership of security agencies will not refuse to meet with them,â€ Achonu pointed out.
The religious leaders are expected to knock on the doors of these security agencies, asking for the institutional changes aforementioned. At the press conference, represented by Bishop Emmanuel Isong and Imam Shefiu, they announced they would deliver sermons once a month highlighting the need for citizens to join the fight against corruption, preaching the gospel of the Report Yourself platform.
â€œThe first step is to report,â€ Shefiu said quoting a verse from the Quran. â€œWhoever among you sees something bad, they must say it. If you cannot say it, you write about it. If you cannot write about it, you pray over it.â€
Given the prevalence of special deliverance prayer meetings, night vigils, Nigeriansâ€™ ability to pray away evil is not in doubt.
Report Yourself recommends that they apply similar vigour to talking and writing about it.
*This report was produced as part of the 2017 BudgIT Media Fellowship