What we can learn from COVID-19 and anti-corruption strategies in Africa.

Originally published by Zukiswa Kota• 3 September 2020

During times of crisis, transparency, accountability and public participation are critical in order to ensure funds are not misappropriated. It is therefore of paramount importance that anti-corruption mechanisms are put in place as a matter of priority in order to monitor the use of public funds, writes Zukiswa Kota

Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1: A money-laundering investigation by the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) into a payment to a pharmaceutical company in the United Arab Emirates (Drax International) which was subsequently linked to procurement deals facilitated by Zimbabwe’s Minister of Health and Child Care, Obadiah Moyo. 

Scenario 2: 4,000 bags of Covid-19 relief rice and US$40-million in relief funds raised by citizens of Cameroon towards a Special National Solidarity Fund that the government is now unable to account for.

Scenario 3: A dozen firms in Kenya were awarded contracts worth Sh3-billion (US$28-million) – by the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority to deliver items that were not covered by the state agency’s 2019/20 approved budget – which included connected individuals and their friends receiving millions of shillings worth of irregular contract payments. 

What are the common threads linking these cases?

One common denominator between these cases is the misuse of power and political influence to misdirect public resources. These are funds intended to provide relief from the impacts of the pandemic to the most vulnerable. Another important thread knitting them together is the involvement of civil society actors in exposing and unraveling the webs of graft, money laundering, and patronage. This is partly achieved through the publicizing of allocations and tracking of public expenditure. This is often easier said than done as public finance environments across the African continent are often anything but enabling. So we launched the #Account4COVID initiative to bring together activists from across the continent to fix a lens on their experiences in implementing anti-corruption strategies.  The outcomes so far have been both enlightening and uplifting.

Covid-19 has not only exacerbated weaknesses in African states’ public financial management (PFM) systems but in some cases, it has curtailed the abilities of citizens and elected representatives to exert much-needed accountability and oversight.

The pandemic has vividly exposed recurrent and novel corrupt practices as more and more questions are asked, and closer scrutiny of the public service is undertaken by some media, civil society organizations, and funding entities. How often have we heard the relatable lament that “Covid-19 is more than just a health crisis”? The Hansel and Gretel-esque nature of tracking Covid-19 resources is increasingly highlighting this truism. Our interventions, therefore, must – if we are to safeguard precious resources in the long-term – recognize that the problem is both about adequate health responses as it is about PFM systems and/or reform.

The consequences of continued failures to stem corruption are dire; the lives of hundreds of Africans are at stake.

Among the #Account4COVID initiative partners is BudgIT – one of the continent’s foremost civic technology fiscal transparency organizations based in Nigeria. Founding Director Oluseun Onigbinde facilitated the conversation, beginning by highlighting the overarching challenges introduced by Covid-19 and related emergency procurement complexities. A fundamental reminder foregrounding this all is that there are numerous dedicated, innovative civil society leaders in Africa who are committed to addressing corruption within the public and private sectors squarely. And their approaches are as inspiring as they are varied.

Gilbert Sedungwa, the Executive Director of the Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), shared examples of graft in Zimbabwe, Cameroon, and Uganda. His emphasis that corruption related to Covid-19 need not be seen – or treated – as events that are geographically isolated or unique, is a reminder of the need to deeply interrogate the systemic enablers of corruption, particularly in emergency contexts. Notably – at the time of writing this article – Nigeria ($3.4-billion) and South Africa ($4.3-billion) had received the two highest loan disbursements from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) out of a total of $ 50.9-billion to African countries. The loan to South Africa, according to Bloomberg, constitutes the IMF’s largest single disbursement to any country to date.

Sedungwa cited a range of factors contributing to corruption in countries like Uganda and Mali, including lack of transparency in public procurement, flouting of regulations, and weak/non-existent internal controls within government implementing agencies. The innovations in response have taken some steps to monitor international loans targeted at providing Covid-19 relief across Africa, using a Relief Fund tracker. Partnerships between entities such as the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC) and Centre for Human Rights Rehabilitation are monitoring the implementation of civic engagement commitments in World Bank-supported Covid-19 response projects in Malawi, Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda.

Leonida Mutuku, CEO of Intelipro Limited shared insights in her capacity as a member of the Africa Open Data Network, based in Kenya. Mutuku emphasized the need for CSOs to ensure that their governments account for and explain their allocation and use of Covid-19 funds. In addition to touting the centrality of open budget portals in order to track funds and expose possible misuse, Mutuku emphasized the need to combine open data initiatives with efforts to enhance the effectiveness of judicial systems.

High on the priority list too – in order to support forensic investigations and strengthen transparency – are functional open contracting portals. An important message here is that open data is merely a means to an end, not an end in itself. Understanding this, the Action for Transparency (A4T) project addresses corruption and mismanagement of government by leveraging a mix of mobile apps, social media platforms, and ICT platforms

Covid-19 has parallels with the impacts wrought by natural disasters. Cyclone Idai – rated as one of the most severe cyclones to ever make landfall in Africa – presented several countries in the region with a range of horrific lessons. Not least of these lessons pertains to the cost to livelihoods of countries’ inadequate disaster preparedness and management. In Zimbabwe, the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (ZIMCODD) Janet Zhou, described a civil society initiative coordinated by ZIMCODD to track all resources pledged, received, and utilized by the government of Zimbabwe in the Covid-19 response.

According to Zhou, the tool tracks cash and in-kind resources mobilized domestically and internationally. Publishing weekly updates, ZIMCODD’s Tracker provides information about resources directly or indirectly received by the government. The Tracker was developed using financial modeling with the aim of ensuring prudent stewardship of resources mobilized for national pandemic relief.

Zhou’s organization persistently raises the lack of transparency and accountability in Covid-19 resource allocation and expenditure at both central and local government levels as a concern. They raise, too, the interwoven nature of opaque reporting to systemic corruption particularly evident during times of disaster. Perhaps even more pernicious is the criminalization of anti-corruption activists which in turn impacts citizens’ oversight and questioning of the allocation and spending of Covid-19 funds.

The role of civic tech tools and universal online connectivity is clearly vital. Nathalie Sidibe, the founder of an anti-corruption platform focused on development aid transparency in Mali highlighted the value of web-based tools. Stating that the francophone country lacks open data platforms on relief funds, Sidibe identified opportunities for developing existing platforms such as SaidMali (“Said” stands for Suivi de l’Aide au Développement – following of development aid) to monitor fiscal flows in Mali. Using the example of an open data initiative with geospatial data to provide users with information about health facilities providing screening, testing, and other services, she also advocated for using this data to inform future need-based health infrastructure development in Mali.

There are clear threads weaving these pan-African interventions together. Firstly, access to information and open data where it is available is vital. Governments should proactively disclose procurement and contract data on Covid-19 response projects. Civil society organizations, too, should use already existing data to track and publicize maladministration, and fraud.

A critical reminder from Sedungwa; development partners should emulate the IMF in disclosing Covid-19 support. We would add to that the need to publicize and raise awareness about loan conditions. Ensuring that the public has access to information pertaining to loans and projects should be a priority for governments and development partners alike. Similar to Mutuku’s, Zhou’s organization advocates for the urgent enactment of “fit-for-purpose whistle-blowers’ protection legislation” as a mechanism to enhance and promote reporting of crime in the public finance and economic sectors.

To date, our dialogues with frontline anti-corruption activists illustrate not only the need to establish the terms of engagement in policy and politics but to establish multi-pronged interventions that place access to information at the center. We are reminded just how important the triad of transparency, accountability, and public participation (TAP) is.

By involving those most affected by failures in public resource management, countries may be in a better position to adapt and strengthen their local TAP strategies particularly regarding the efficient allocation of limited resources. This, therefore, is an opportunity not only to acknowledge the weaknesses in key planning, budgeting, and oversight systems but to utilize open government interventions to address them. TAP strategies remain critical to solving many of these challenges as well as in bolstering our broader fiscal governance systems. DM/MC

Zukiswa Kota is a program manager at the Public Service Accountability Monitor. Beginning in April 2020, Accountability Lab (Mali), AfroLeadership (Cameroon), BudgIT (Nigeria), Global Integrity (USA), and the Public Service Accountability Monitor (South Africa) have brought together various partners in Africa to share lessons in responding to accountability and governance challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The #Account4COVID initiative aims to promote greater accountability, civic inclusion, and transparency in Covid-19 relief funds.