By Patrick Egwu

Early last year, Olanrewaju Oyedeji, a Nigerian journalist with Dataphyte, a media, research, and data analytics organisation, started reviewing the open contracting portal of Oyo state. Located in southwest Nigeria, Oyo is home to eight million people, including Nigeria’s third largest city, Ibadan. Oyo state’s contracting portal provides data for all public procurement by that state government and aims to promote transparency for public engagement.

Oyedeji is an investigative data journalist with seven years reporting experience covering accountability, finance, conflict, and public contracting. His work has exposed illicit financial flows and abuse of procurement laws across Nigeria through data analysis and open contracting portals. He first came across this story when he observed some irregularities and other unusual spending on school notebook production contracts and decided to dig further.

The contracts, worth N1.294 billion (US$2.8 million), were to supply more than 200,000 customised notebooks to public secondary schools in the state and were awarded in four batches between August 2019 and December 2021.

Oyedeji’s findings, which uncovered highly inflated cost estimates and fraudulent bidding, turned into a three-part series investigation tagged #NotebookGate. It revealed systemic abuse of the contracting process and misappropriation of public funds during the procurement processes. In many cases, public officials are handing out contracts for public projects to their friends and associates without following due process or procurement laws. However, independent journalists, news organisations, and civil society groups have been at the forefront in shining the light on procurement fraud, corruption, lack of transparency, and accountability.

Reporting the story, connecting the dots

Oyedeji began his probe by using Oyo state’s open contracting portal. Next, he turned to the database of Nigeria’s Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) to trace the beneficial ownership of the companies awarded the contracts. This involved downloading thousands of lines of data from the open contracting portal, which, when analysed, raised red flags on the notebook contracts. Finally, he relied upon social network analysis software tools — Python and NetworkX — to establish links between officials at the companies and the governor of the state.

After all this online investigation, however, Oyedeji pivoted to on-the-ground reporting, looking into the real-world status of the awarded companies and the products they were supposedly producing.

“Our findings showed that these companies do not have any physical office space, despite listing some addresses on the Corporate Affairs Commission page, and we found out that at no point did they occupy the address they listed as their physical working address, showing a classic case of shell companies,” he explained.

Oyedeji added that he did other fieldwork, like going undercover to investigate in-person the existence of the companies in question. He also conducted a market survey to sample the prices of 60-page and 80-page notebooks bought directly from printing press companies. This allowed him to compare prices of the government contracts to the costs of the same notebooks on the open market.

Oyedeji’s investigation estimated that the Oyo government could have saved more than N500 million (about US$1.2 million) if it had produced the notebooks at the market rate, instead of awarding the contracts to friends and associates. He also revealed, through a review of the beneficial ownership data, that the companies were owned by the same individual and had existing relationships with the government. In addition, the firms were also officially registered by the CAC on the same day in September — just three months before the contracts were awarded in December 2020.

Adenike Aloba, the editor at Dataphyte who worked with Oyedeji on the story, said the team had been already working on a trove of procurement data, reviewing it against pre-discussed red flags. By scraping and downloading all the data from the governmental portals, they were able to import it into spreadsheets and look for suspicious patterns. “The reporter,” noted Aloba, “found these irregularities as he was examining the Oyo state’s procurement data and pursued the loose threads.”

Aloba added that making sure the story was coherent despite the many moving parts and ensuring that the description of the data was correct was one of the biggest editorial challenges. To help readers make sense of the numbers and complex data, the investigation was published in multimedia format, using text, video, and data visualisation.

Aloba said it was also important not only to tell the story of corruption but also to show how laws were violated and tell the story of the impact of corruption on effective and efficient service delivery to the people of the state.

Impact of the investigation

The story generated strong reactions from civil society organisations and put mounting pressure on the government for accountability. After the first part of the story was published last April, the governor of the state, Seyi Makinde, promised to resign if the state established misconduct or corruption in awarding the contracts. He also promised to take legal action against Dataphyte if the findings of the investigation were false. To date, however, the state has not initiated any investigation and Makinde remains in office.

Notebookgate has also led to louder calls for accountability and transparency by civil society organisations in Oyo. Advocacy programmes on radio and social media campaigns have been organised to raise awareness of the impact of procurement fraud on the public and growing calls for the arrest and prosecution of those involved. “This development has strengthened democratic governance in the country while putting scrutiny on fiscal governance,” Oyedeji said.

Dataphyte’s investigation was republished by local and international publications and has encouraged journalists across Nigeria to increase coverage of corruption linked to the contracting process. The state’s ministry of information sent Dataphyte a statement attempting to debunk the report and providing additional data to support its claims. The agency claimed that the investigation “betrays a lack of journalistic or investigative rigor.”

“We are baffled that any news media would arrive at conclusions regarding contract awards without reaching out to any agency of the Oyo State Government for comments or clarifications,” the statement read. In fact, Oyedeji had reached out to state officials for comment in the initial stages of his investigation, but received no response.

The state’s rebuttal backfired, Aloba added. “This [additional] data only lent credence to the initial report and provided enough material for the second part of the report. No further threats of lawsuits have however been made since then.”

At the end of 2022, Olanrewaju Oyedeji received a commendation at the 17th Wole Soyinka Awards for Investigative Journalism for his three-part series on the violation of contract laws in Oyo State.

Accountability journalism promotes good governance, democracy

Deji Adekunle, a data and media development expert based in Abuja, said data-driven and evidence-based investigations like this are essential to holding power to account. “Stories on procurement are the bedrock of governance procedures in terms of the services the government provides to the public,” he explained. “With pieces like this, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability are exposed.”

Adekunle added that open data advocacy is also important because the more open governance is, the more accountability journalism can thrive. “This investigation is an example of that,” he noted. “No one talks about the flaws in the system, everyone assumes everything is fine.”

“Journalists are not activists and do not prosecute,” Adekunle pointed out. “But when stories like this are done, civil society actors could use it to advocate for better procedures and outcomes in governance and to mount pressure on the government so that something is done about a system.”

Lessons learned

On lessons learned from the #NotebookGate investigation, Aloba said finding the right example to showcase the connection among procurement irregularities, poor service, corruption, and beneficial ownership, was important in elevating the reportage. “Connecting these important dots consistently is even more important now for journalism and that’s what we hope to continue to do with data journalism,” she said.

Oyedeji added that the investigation shows the importance of combining beneficial ownership data and technology. In all, more than over 100,000 rows of beneficial ownership profiles — 45mb of data — was analysed, using Python to scrape information from B2BHint. “A larger percentage of the report was made possible as we were able to deploy data and technology tools. It also showed that with data journalism we can hold the power to account even better,” he said.

Oyedeji’s biggest challenge in the investigation may have been taking the risk to go undercover to expose the contracts corruption. He disguised himself and took a pseudonym to visit the offices of the companies that were awarded the contracts to ascertain their authenticity. In Nigeria, where journalists are increasingly under threat and facing attacks from corrupt businesses and government officials, such an adventure could be dangerous.

“In the end,” he said, “it’s a risk worth taking.”

This story was originally published by the Global Investigative Journalism Network.


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