Oil money oozes into graft

Official corruption in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta is robbing the local population of basic health and educational services, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The 107-page report describes health clinics lacking running water and electricity — not to mention mattresses and even the most basic medications — and schools without textbooks and chalk.

“Local government is supposed to help the school but they don’t,” one primary school teacher told HRW. “The most important things we need are textbooks, instructional materials, and a toilet …”

The report, released in Lagos this week, found that local government officials in Rivers State have squandered increased revenues — derived from higher oil prices — through mismanagement and outright theft.

Meanwhile, the state’s local authorities have failed to make primary education and healthcare available to the state’s enormous indigent population, according to the report titled Chop Fine: The Human Rights Impact of Local Government Corruption and Mismanagement in Rivers State, Nigeria.

“State and local budgets have expanded dramatically in recent years, but mismanagement and theft have left basic health and education services in a terrible state of decay,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at HRW.

The report encourages the Nigerian government to enact reforms for greater transparency and accountability at all levels of government.

Meanwhile, according to the Lagos-based Daily Champion, the Rivers State government rejected the report, calling it a “distortion of facts and reality”. At an HRW press conference in Lagos, protesters questioned why Rivers State was singled out to demonstrate the problem of corruption, which they said plagues the entire country. Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has found that 31 of 36 sitting state governors could face corruption charges upon leaving office.

Although the Nigerian federal government has taken some steps toward greater transparency in its accounting and in spending its budget, the report says, it has had far more limited success in encouraging similar practices by state and local governments, which are largely responsible for the administration of primary healthcare and education.

In the past, local governments lacked sufficient resources to fund even basic programmes, but sharp increases in the price of oil — combined with a general increase in state and local funding since the return to civilian rule in 1999 — have swollen the coffers of local governments.

The oil-producing states have benefited most from the new situation. Under the law, state governments receive 13% of the revenue generated from the oil pumped from their territory by the federal government.

At $1,3-billion, Rivers State government last year had Nigeria’s largest budget to see to the welfare of its five million people. By comparison, the entire budget of Senegal, a country of about 12-million people, and one of West Africa’s wealthier nations, was only slightly larger at $1,7-billion. Despite its new wealth, however, the money allocated to Rivers State does not appear to be getting to most of its citizens.

“You would have expected that [the increase in revenue] would have translated into a qualitative improvement in health and human welfare, and it just hasn’t worked out that way,” said Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group. “There is tremendous leakage, to use a very charitable word, with state and local governments — a lack of accountability.”

HRW, whose researchers spent four weeks seeking out information about how the state’s money was spent, said the task proved extremely difficult. While local governments are required to produce detailed reports for receipts and expenditures, “these documents are generally treated as tightly guarded secrets”, according to HRW.

The report’s focus on the need for reliable budgetary information reflects a growing trend in monitoring human rights performance by governments, particularly their compliance with economic and social rights, such as health, housing and education.

“Budgeting is no longer viewed as an exclusive exercise that is carried out by ministries of finance,” according to Noeleen Heyzer, the executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem), “but rather a process that entails aligning national development plans and goals and human rights commitments with budget policies in a transparent and coherent manner.” When that information is unavailable, or difficult to obtain, the resulting graft can lead to an abdication of governments’ responsibility to comply with social and economic rights to the best of their ability, according to the report.

Under Nigerian law, the federal government is responsible for the development of general health policies, and for monitoring and evaluating health facilities. The responsibilities of building facilities, providing medicines, and paying salaries, however, are all left to the local governments.

And while the federal government has intervened and sometimes stripped local governments of the responsibility for paying primary school teachers, local governments in Rivers State continue to fall short in providing classrooms, textbooks, and desks, according to the report.

Instead, the report claims, local governments in Rivers State have been investing in “frivolous” construction projects that are often abandoned before they are finished.

A “school for the physically challenged”, for example, never opened its doors. When HRW researchers made an on-site inspection of the building, they found it could only be reached by leaping over a muddy ditch. Similarly, a pond intended as a demonstration project for the promotion of aquaculture has never been stocked with fish. HRW found records for some projects that were paid for in advance but never actually began.

According to HRW, the purpose of such “frivolous” construction projects is to siphon money to contractors, and when the money stops, so does the project.

While the state government is required to monitor the local government’s performance to prevent such abuses, HRW found evidence that it not only fails to do so, but commits similar abuses, as well.

Reacting to these charges, Rivers State commissioner for local government affairs, Mealer Oforibika, was reported by one Lagos newspaper to have insisted that his office intends to publish all local governments’ expenditures. “We have nothing to fear because we have put our house in order,” he reportedly told the Daily Champion recently.

But Chris Albin-Lackey, a researcher for the HRW report, said he hoped that elections in April might bring needed changes in state and local leadership. “One of the biggest questions, in the coming months, is whether people will have the opportunity to put someone in there who has an interest in trying to meet their responsibilities.”

In 2003, the local elections in Rivers State were marred by political violence. The violence, according to the HRW report, was initiated by people funded by the same graft to which elections could potentially put an end. “Some of those perpetrating violence on behalf of the candidates were allegedly funded with money embezzled from state and local coffers.” — IPS

For full report go to www.hrw.org

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Guthrie Gray
Guest Author

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