Experts from across the world met at the weekend with a resolution that offers a roadmap on how to ensure openness in the handling of billions of funds and materials received to fight COVID-19.

The experts numbering 70 called on political leaders, especially in Nigeria not to use the COVID-19 pandemic as another conduit pipe to siphon public funds.

In his opening remarks, the HEDA Chairman, Mr Olanrewaju Suraju said information made available to the public on COVID-19 expenditure is too scanty, and inaccurate information dissemination by Government about the extent of the pandemic and measures being taken to combat it and what exceptional measures are being or not being taken to halt the spread are important to the public.

He cited an example relating to insufficient information about the illegal exposure of private medical institutions in states across the country to the pandemic adding that it is in the public interest to know these centres and what measures have been taken to neutralize the threat of infection.

He expressed worry about the lack of openness and the opaqueness surrounding the financing and disbursement modalities of reliefs (food, cash, or the advancement of credit to SMEs). He wondered how beneficiaries of palliatives are determined and what the sources of finances are.

The four areas of thematic focus were Access to health records: information management and public interest; FOI and Public spending in the COVID-19 phase and beyond; Balancing the interests and rights exemptions to disclosure; and whistleblower protection and anti-corruption

The panel expressed concerns about the broad issues of how the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or other Accountability mechanisms like the Open Government Partnership can be deployed to ensure transparency and accountability in public and private institutions handling public funds.

Some of the participants included Director of Juritrust Centre, Prof Adedeji Adekunle, (SAN), Lecturer, University of Kent, Dr Gbenga Oduntan (United Kingdom), Dean of Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, Prof Ayodele Atsenuwa, Maurice Aselue, Advisor to the United Kingdome Freedom of information Office, Maurice Aselue, HEDA Chairman, Mr Olanrewaju Suraju, Musaddiq Kabir, Harrison Udim, Precious Ahiakwo among many others.

The gathering observed that COVID-19 poses a serious danger to livelihood and that even after the defeat of the pandemic, workers, political and social institutions, the private and informal sectors will for a long time deal with the awry legacies of the dreaded virus. They argued that it is important for public institutions to be inclusive in handling the financial issues tied to the pandemic.

The participants who were drawn from different fields of human development met under the auspices of Human and Environmental Development Agenda, (HEDA Resource Centre) via Zoom, the virtual information networking forum.

The meeting said it is important for the civil society to invoke relevant legislation including but not limited to the Freedom of Information Act, to hold government responsible adding that the mindset of the government needs to change from seeing public information as the property of individuals in government rather than seeing it as public property.

“Once you submit to performing public functions, you have to account to the public beneficiaries of your actions,” participants said. HEDA said that though Nigeria has no whistle blower laws, yet the existing legal framework provides enough cover to expose inadequacies in government citing Section 39 of the Nigerian constitution which gives Nigerians the right to report corruption and iniquities by public functionaries.

As part of its resolution after the extensive dialogue and debate, the experts said “Nigerians are impressed by the donations and funding going to the various tiers of government. The people are aware of billions of funds that have been donated locally and internationally to the efforts aimed at eliminating the pandemic. The world has shown solidarity more than ever before. It is important for the public to know how the funds are disbursed”, the experts said.

HEDA raised basic questions of transparency, due process and openness by institutions receiving funds on behalf of the people, saying that while Nigerians are in a haste to see an end to a pandemic that has kept them behind doors, they are also anxious to witness a transparent process employed in all financial activities involved in efforts to curb the pandemic.

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