THE MANTRA PROJECT: ASSESSING SUCCESS THROUGH CITIZENS ENGAGEMENT

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I sometimes feel many people working in International Development are ignorant when it comes to assessing what success looks like in Anti-Corruption interventions. This is understandable, as the challenge of tackling corruption may seem insurmountable in contexts where governance remains poor; systems are broken, and society largely conditioned to think that nothing can be done to stop public funds being stolen by corrupt officials. In judging the success of Anti-Corruption interventions, it is important to hear directly from beneficiaries to form a credible opinion about what has worked, or not.  This means closely engaging with a wide range of stakeholders, rather than standing back and measuring impact by sanctions imposed e.g. the number of prosecutions, which was the metric when I first started working on Anti-Corruption programmes over 10 years ago.  It is impossible to draw evidence of success simply from narrative reports about formal institutional processes. For corrupt individuals the benefits far outweigh the risk of incarceration, so prosecution is more like an occupational hazard, rather than a “game changer”.    

Means of verifying the impact of Anti-Corruption interventions can range from the simplest methods to the most complex. But methodologies need to be flexible and adaptive in nature, not rigid. Impact can materialise quickly, or form over a longer duration, normally outside the life of the programme.  Therefore, it makes sense to think beyond just programming and more about overall political and policy commitment to the fight against corruption, as a major risk to all development efforts.  Fundamentally, it is necessary to establish what makes sense in any country context and work with, rather than against the grain, with a long-term perspective.

In early 2018, the repatriation of the Abacha 2 Loot US$322.5 million was well-publicised and remains in public view, as a result of sustained monitoring by the UK funded MANTRA Project, implemented by the Africa Network for Environment and Economic Justice (ANEEJ),under the Anti-Corruption in Nigeria Programme (ACORN).  It is really encouraging that Nigerians continue to scrutinise and debate the use of this money, primarily whether it should be used or is being used for Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) to the poorest Nigerians, as part of the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP).   Most recently, the National Assembly enquired about the use of budgetary allocations to NSIP, rightly seeking clarification as part of their oversight role.  Data and evidence generated by the MANTRA Project, publicly contributed towards responding to the National Assembly on CCT.  The MANTRA Project was able to enter this high-level dialogue in a constructive manner, at this critical time of the COVID 19 response, when more than ever the poorest Nigerians need a reliable form of basic support.  

Therefore, in thinking about what success looks like, I see a potential “game changer” in the form of the MANTRA Project, which has contributed massively, in a short period of time, towards increasing public awareness about the status of the Abacha 2 Loot. The Project is also promoting the concept of continuous civil society monitoring of repatriated money, through a broad network of civil society organisations, with a strong focus on sustainability.  It is important to note that there were numerous repatriations of stolen money to Nigeria, which most Nigerians are not even aware of.   In assessing the MANTRA Project, baseline information is important, critical to which is the question: How many Nigerians are aware of what happened to previous Abacha repatriations from Switzerland, totalling some US$700 million over the past decade?  In fact, there was limited awareness of previous returns and Nigerians would not have benefited to any real extent, due to a lack of transparency around the handling of these repatriations. The MANTRA Project aims to fill this gap.  The protection of the Abacha 2 Loot comes as a direct result of the MANTRA Project mobilising citizens and the willingness of ANEEJ to work constructively with the Governments of Nigeria, Switzerland and the UK in establishing an arrangement to monitor how this money is disbursed and managed, end-to-end.

Focusing forward, the ground is fertile for further enhancing public scrutiny and mobilising citizens in protecting repatriated funds.  For example, Nigerians already have some awareness of the Abacha 3 Loot, currently being negotiated for repatriation from the US and Jersey.  An unintended result would be public interest in repatriated funds, expanding to other areas of public sector financing and increasing demand for greater accountability across the board.

The success of the MANTRA Project is drawn from basic principles of good development practice:  effective communication; participatory approaches and promoting local ownership and leadership etc. However, it is useful to reflect on how this innovative intervention came to fruition.  The MANTRA Project evolved through building trusting relationships between likeminded development entrepreneurs, who had the ability to think outside the box in identifying and exploiting emerging opportunities.  Such key opportunities were the Global Forum for Asset Recovery (GFAR) in Washington in December 2017, which promoted civil society involvement in asset recovery and management; the timing of the repatriation of the Abacha 2 Loot; ANEEJ securing a MoU with the Ministry of Justice and ANEEJ promptly seeking to localise the GFAR Principles in Nigeria, with UK support. In addition, the UK DFID helped in securing political backing through the Office of the Vice President’s agreement to launch the MANTRA Project on African Anti-Corruption Day in July 2018. This launch was instrumental in helping the MANTRA Project to gain recognition and access.  Obviously, predictability of funding was another important element and the MANTRA Project secured a grant under the UK funded Anti-Corruption in Nigeria Programme, which I managed, to commence a short pilot which was later extended to December 2021.

The game changing effect is demonstrating that US$322.5 million repatriated to Nigeria can be used to benefit poor Nigerian households, with locally driven monitoring arrangements (involving citizens) for ensuring transparency and accountability.  The MANTRA Project has established what can only be described as an army of 814 civil society monitors to provide oversight of the distribution process, protecting the interests of poor beneficiaries.  Whilst the MANTRA Project has identified weaknesses in the distribution process, the priority is to help fix, rather than to fixate, recognising the corrupt is a dominant contextual characteristic in Nigeria.   

The next step is making the Grievance Redress Mechanism work which will help to further increase the trust and confidence of beneficiaries and strengthen the voice and agency of citizens to hold government to account. The MANTRA Project is helping to harness the power of citizens to say no to bribery and corruption.  I see this task being less for extremely poor beneficiaries whose main preoccupation is survival, but more for the better off and middle-class critics and policy makers who question the validity of cash transfers and other social investment programmes, without rooting strongly and consistently for the poorest in Nigerian society.   Through the MANTRA Project, I have seen greater awareness and attention to the needs of the poor amongst policy and decision makers.   The approach demonstrated by the MANTRA Project could be replicated to achieve a multiplier effect.  All social investment programmes could be transformed overtime, if citizens continue to engage and see themselves as active players, rather than passive beneficiaries or armchair critics.   Sustainability hinges on the extent to which the MANTRA Project can embed itself within communities and encourage ordinary citizens to feel part of the process of tackling any form of corruption that affects their lives.    The energy currently driving the MANTRA Project should endure, long after the ACORN Programme ends, if processes are locally owned and championed by Nigerians.  Positive life changing results can be achieved through the MANTRA Project, which in my view is what success looks like…ultimately.

Sonia Warner

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