(Lagos, January 31, 2007) – Local government officials in Nigeria's wealthiest oil-producing state have squandered rising revenues that could provide basic health and education services for some of Nigeria's poorest people, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch found that the government's failure to tackle local-level corruption violates Nigeria’s obligation to provide basic health and education services to its citizens.
The 107-page report, "'Chop Fine': The Human Rights Impact of Local Government Corruption and Mismanagement in Rivers State, Nigeria," details the misuse of public funds by local officials in the geographic heart of Nigeria's booming oil industry, and the harmful effects on primary education and basic health care. The report is based on scores of interviews in Rivers state with government and donor agency officials, civil servants, health care workers, teachers, civil society groups and local residents. Human Rights Watch also analyzed state and local government budgets.
"Many state and local officials in Rivers have squandered or stolen public money that could have gone toward providing vital health and education services," said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "State and local budgets have expanded dramatically in recent years, but mismanagement and theft has left basic health and education services in a terrible state of decay."
Human Rights Watch called upon all levels of government in Nigeria to enact without delay key reforms to make state and local governments more transparent and accountable to the public. The reforms should ensure the independence of anti-corruption institutions and give them the resources needed to tackle the epidemic of local-level corruption in Rivers state and elsewhere. It is vital that government at all levels publish and disseminate detailed and accurate information about its use of public resources.
Since 1999, the revenues accruing to the 23 local governments in Rivers have more than quadrupled. And in 2006, the Rivers state government's budget was US$1.3 billion, larger than the budgets of many countries in West Africa. But that windfall has not translated into efforts by local governments to bolster basic education and health care systems that have teetered on the edge of collapse for many years.
Nigeria's federal government, guided in part by the country's constitution, has delegated most of the responsibilities for providing primary health care and basic education services to the 774 local governments. Under international law, Nigeria is obliged to progressively realize, to the maximum of its available resources, Nigerians' fundamental rights to health and education. While the federal and state governments create policy and provide other forms of support, day-to-day responsibility for ensuring services are delivered rests with local government administrations. Many local governments in Rivers have completely ignored these responsibilities.
The report documents how revenues flowing into local government treasuries in recent years have been grossly misallocated or stolen outright. Many local governments have lavished funds on new government offices and other massive construction projects that dwarf spending on health care and education. One local government dedicated only 2.4 percent of its revenues to maintaining its crumbling primary school infrastructure while spending 30 percent of its budget on salaries and expenses for the offices of its chairman and legislative councilors. Some local government chairmen have set aside more money for their own travel and "miscellaneous expenses" than they allocate to the schools and health clinics they are charged with running.
As one embittered resident put it, "All they do is build their headquarters, massive things, air-condition them, and buy vehicles to drive around in."
Significant revenues are also lost to apparent theft. One local government chairman spent huge sums on a series of non-existent projects, including a "demonstration fish pond" with neither water nor fish and a "football academy" that has never been built. Another set aside funds in the local government budget to pay more than 100 "functional committees/protocol officers" whose responsibilities, if any, were entirely unclear; their total salaries exceeded those of all the local government's health sector employees. One local government's chairman was shown by a judicial inquiry to have illegally awarded lucrative contracts for maintenance and other work to himself, in some cases for services he then failed to deliver.
Civil servants, health workers and others told Human Rights Watch that money set aside in local government budgets for health care and education had never reached its intended destination. The salaries of many health workers are months in arrears, even though the money to pay them is included in the budget. The head teacher of one primary school told Human Rights Watch that when he complained to local officials about his school's lack of materials, such as chalk, he was told that the local government had no money for education. Human Rights Watch visited clinics so under-equipped that their demoralized staff could offer almost no services, and in some cases staff had padlocked the doors and abandoned their posts altogether. Many primary schools in Rivers state have no desks, textbooks or other teaching materials, and classes are held in crumbling buildings without access to water or toilet facilities.
"We started to produce oil in 1957 here but look at the town – government has done nothing for us," a teacher interviewed in Akuku/Toru local government told Human Rights Watch. "Local government is supposed to help the school but they don't. They have not given us any support … The most important things we need are textbooks, instructional materials, and a toilet."
The Rivers state government is charged with overseeing the conduct of its local governments. But many of the problems of local-level governance in the state are mirrored by the state government's own conduct. For example, the office of the state governor had a travel budget of roughly US$65,000 per day in 2006, along with budgets for unspecified "grants," "contributions" and "donations" that totaled an additional US$92,000 per day. This official extravagance contrasts sharply with the virtual absence of state services for much of the population.
"Local government corruption in Rivers is astonishingly brazen and has caused untold suffering," said Takirambudde. "Yet neither Rivers state nor the federal government has done nearly enough to address the problem of local corruption or punish those responsible."
Public criticism of the state's misuse of public resources is made difficult because the Rivers state government refuses to publish its budgets and conceals basic information about state government spending from the public. Some journalists and civil society actors who have publicly criticized state government actions have suffered harassment, intimidation and even violence at the hands of government security services and thugs linked to Rivers politicians.
The human impact of the government's failure to live up to its responsibilities to provide basic health and education services is not limited to Rivers state. One in five Nigerian children dies before the age of five, a statistic that translates into more than 1 million child deaths per year. Many are struck down by illnesses that could be easily prevented by the basic health infrastructure Nigeria's local governments are tasked with maintaining. Public primary schools, part of a school system that was once among the best in Africa, have fallen into an appalling state of disrepair and dysfunction across much of Nigeria.
Since the end of military rule in 1999, the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has been waging what it calls a "war on corruption." While Nigeria's federal government has made some efforts to combat corruption and improve the transparency of its own finances, it has failed to address rampant corruption at the state and local levels. Anti-corruption efforts have been hobbled by the government's failure to reform a political system that often rewards politicians who use corruption and violence to subvert the democratic process, especially at the state and local levels.
In Rivers state, many current state and local politicians came to power in elections that were fraudulent and bloody even by the grim standards set by elections across the country in 2003 and 2004.
"Nigeria will not see these problems fade away completely until the government tackles root causes that lie near the heart of the political system," Takirambudde said. "The Nigerian government must ensure that corrupt and abusive politicians aren't able to rig the April elections to place themselves in public office."
Foreign states should urge the Nigerian government to push for greater transparency and accountability in state and local governments, Human Rights Watch said. Governments should be more assertive in preventing corrupt officials from hiding the proceeds of corruption in foreign banks.