OGP And FOI Will Ensure Greater Accountability In The Extractive Sector: Juliet Ibekaku-Nwagwu

Mrs. Juliet Ibekaku-Nwagwu, a lawyer and Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Justice Reform, affirms that Open Government Partnership (OGP) and Freedom of Information (FOI) are anti-corruption tools designed to give the citizen a voice to ask questions about governance. And that will ensure greater accountability in the extractive sector.

In this interview with Mr.Emeka Ononamadu, National Coordinator, PWYP-Nigeria and Mr. Audu Liberty Oseni, the editor “Extracting Accountability” at the National Steering Committee and donors meeting for Open Government Partnership, she speaks on what the government is doing to ensure that OGP and FOI succeed in Nigeria’s governance system. Extract:

Q: Within the OGP framework, what are the measures governments is putting in place for head of MDAs joining newly to understand the importance and also give the needed support

R: It is all about understanding and knowledge sharing that we are currently doing, we started the OGP in 2016, and took off effectively January 2017, following the approval of the action plan.  There are challenges in the areas of funding, capacity and getting everybody on board at the same time to manage the policy framework.  However, we hope that, as we proceed, MDAs will see the need for OGP to be mainstreamed not just as anti-corruption tool but to open up governance and start engaging the citizens over critical important information. With the presidential support from the top, it behooves on the people to see what the president is doing, see the direction he is going and come on board.

Q: In PWYP-Nigeria, our focus is on the extractive sector, we believe that if OGP works within the extractive sector, over 90% of Nigeria’s problem will be solved. Are there any other extra OGP measures for the extractive sector work?

R: NEITI is doing a lot of work, trying to open up the extractive sector, we don’t want to duplicate what NEITI is doing, but we are going to get NEITI to mainstream the principle of transparency and accountability across the oil and gas sector as well as the mining sector. We have committed to transparency within the OGP framework, we need to let government and private companies know that Nigeria corporate framework has changed and we need to imbibe the principles of transparency and open governance into, not just government, but business and private sector, oil and gas as well as mining sector.  It is going to take a while to really catch on, but we have started a process, something we cannot change, that process will run its course.

Q: OGP platform is on equal partnership, how are you going to encourage the non-state actors to have the confidence to engage the government on it?

R: We are engaging the government, civil society, private sector and the citizens on an equal basis. We just had a frank and open discussion at the steering committee meeting about where we want Nigeria to be. During the meeting we did not distinguish between ministers, CSOs or non-state actors. During my speech at the meeting, I stressed that it is the citizens that own the government. If you are in government today, you will exit tomorrow and another will come in. We must see government as our own and must show the direction on how the government should go. Thus, if we can escalate our citizen engagement using the OGP platform, we have achieved greater confidence among the citizens, communities, and the state

Q: The Freedom of Information Act is fundamental to the fight against corruption, what is government doing to ensure compliance by the extractive sector considering its low compliance level?

R: We are working hard to see how to integrate the FOI framework into the MDAs and other agencies that are not complying; we have two commitments on FOI. First, to make sure all MDAs comply fully. Second is to ensure proactive disclosure i.e. you do not have to wait until you are asked to disclose. With these two commitments, we have set out activities that are going to ensure that we meet that goal. How we will meet that goal is by working closely with the MDAs ensure their understanding and improved capacity. We are going to possibly request for the amendment of FOI Act, to look at the issues of sanctions, what we have today is purely administrative reprimands that do not include adequate sanctions.

Q: Some states argue that FOI has not been domesticated in their states hence they will not comply; do we need to domesticate an Act which is a federal law?  

R: If it is a federal law and is applying federally, it does not need to be domesticated for it to be applied. FOI is related to anti-corruption laws.  The essence of FOI is to give the citizens a voice to ask questions about governance, therefore it does not need to be domesticated. What we need to do is to make sure that states understand that it is a federal law and it is applicable across the country. It is related to anti-corruption, it is one of the tools with which we can fight corruption that the system is opened up. Some states are doing very well along that line, some states are doing open budget, open contracting etc. we want ot see more states engaged and more states complying with the FOI law.

Q: If only federal government is less corrupt and the 36 states are more corrupt, do you think we would make head way in reducing corruption?

R: There should be some sub national engagement to involve states, we are now discussing with the Nigerian Governors Forum, and it is a difficult process. We need to take it to their doors that it will serve citizens interest. Most of them are being prosecuted today because they have not managed their resources very well.  We want to be proactive in dealing with the issues. Why is FOI difficult in implementing at state levels, why would state governors quarrel if federal government publishes the money released to states and they cannot tell citizens what they are doing with it? We need to sensitize at lowest level of governance, which is what citizens’ engagement platform is all about. That is the way we can integrate the FOI and Open budget, citizens must hold their leaders accountable.

Q: What is the weakest link in OGP implementation particularly that government did not make budget provision for its implementation in 2017.

R: It is something that has to do with timing and the release of the action plan, government cannot make a budget without a plan. The action plan was released in December 2016; we are going to be looking for supplementary budget to support the work. But Bearing in mind, there are many activities going on within the MDAs focused on opening up those MDAs. E-government is one of them, huge amount of resources are going to be approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC), the same thing for Open Contracting, huge amount of resources are being invested, the same thing with the FOI that is going on at different levels of government. There are so much going on, we have to aggregate that and of course aggregate the resources and see what government is putting in. I won’t say government is not doing anything, I will say government is doing very much that we have not put into record. We are looking at doing a baseline assessment of what is going on in various MDAs to help us articulate the investment that government has made in OGP. One of the challenges will be to fund extensively, the extent of how we want citizens to engage, because it is going to rely on technology. For us to really get to the citizens, can we get a mobile app and speaks the languages that local communities understand, because, almost everybody has a portable phone or a radio, can we achieve that. That for me will be the major challenges, how do we reach the lowest segment of the community and how do they become part of this discussion.

Q: which part of OGP particularly within the extractive sector  do you think PWYP-Nigeria can do well in terms of expanding the scope and making it a national programme that involves states and local governments?

R: first of all, you have a lot of work to do in terms of budgeting, contracting, tax revenue, ease of doing business and certainly trying to engage with the multi nationals who are working in the oil and gas sector. In terms of reaching out and publishing information, I think you have a very good newsletter, and I want to encourage you to use a medium that will reach out to as many people as possible. If it is possible to get the Newsletter out to the public space, to the students, the media, and to those who can actually use it for policy making like the governors forum  and get them to understand the whole extractive transparency issue and what we stand to gain as a country. Extractive sector is a very broad area of work, and there is so much to be done.