At the beginning of last year, Olanrewaju Oyedeji, a Nigerian journalist with Dataphyte, a media, research and data analytics organization, began reviewing the Oyo State open recruitment portal. Located in southwestern Nigeria, Oyo is home to eight million people, including Nigeria’s third-largest city, Ibadan. The Oyo State Procurement Portal provides data for all public procurement made by that state government and aims to promote transparency for public participation.
Oyedeji is an investigative data journalist with seven years of reporting on accountability, finance, conflict, and public procurement. His work has exposed illicit financial flows and abuse of procurement laws in Nigeria through data analysis and open procurement portals. He first came across this story when he noticed some irregularities and other unusual expenses in the contracts for the production of school notebooks and decided to investigate further.
The contracts, worth N1.294 billion (US$2.8 million), were to supply more than 200,000 personalized notebooks to public high schools in the state and were awarded in four batches between August 2019 and December 2021.
Oyedeji’s findings, which revealed grossly inflated cost estimates and fraudulent bids, became a three-part investigation series tagged #NotebookGate. It revealed the systemic abuse of the recruitment process and the misappropriation of public funds during recruitment processes. In many cases, public officials award contracts for public projects to their friends and associates without following due process or procurement laws. However, independent journalists, news organizations and civil society groups have been at the forefront in exposing procurement fraud, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability.
Reporting the story, connecting the dots
Oyedeji began her research using the Oyo State open recruitment portal. He then turned to the Nigerian Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) database to track down the beneficial owners of the companies awarded the contracts. This involved downloading thousands of lines of data from the open contracting portal, which, when analyzed, raised red flags in laptop contracts. Ultimately, he relied on social network analytics software tools Python and NetworkX to establish links between company officials and the state governor.
However, after all this online research, Oyedeji turned to the reports on the ground, investigating the actual status of the award-winning 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 that at no time did they occupy the address they listed as their physical work address, showing a classic case of fictitious companies”, he explained.
Oyedeji added that he did other field work, such as going undercover to investigate the existence of the companies in question in person. He also conducted a market survey to test the prices of 60- and 80-page notebooks purchased directly from printers. This allowed him to compare the prices of government contracts with the costs of the same laptops on the open market.
Oyedeji’s research estimated that the Oyo government could have saved more than N500 million (about US$1.2 million) if it had produced the notebooks at market price, rather than awarding the contracts to friends and associates. He also revealed, through a review of beneficial ownership data, that the companies were owned by the same individual and had existing relationships with the government. In addition, the companies 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 Dataphyte editor who worked with Oyedeji on the story, said the team had already been working on a large amount of procurement data, checking it against the red flags discussed previously. By collecting and downloading all the data from government portals, they were able to import it into spreadsheets and search for suspicious patterns. “The reporter,” Aloba noted, “found these irregularities while examining Oyo State procurement data and chasing down loose threads.”
Aloba added that making sure the story was cohesive despite the many moving parts and ensuring the data description was correct was one of the biggest editorial challenges. To help readers understand complex numbers and data, the research was published in a multimedia format, using text, video, and data visualization.
Aloba said it was also important to not only tell the story of corruption, but also to show how laws were broken and tell the story of the impact of corruption on the effective and efficient delivery of services to the people of the state.
The story generated strong reactions from civil society organizations and put increasing pressure on the government to be held accountable. After the first part of the story broke last April, the state’s governor, Seyi Makinde, vowed to resign if the state established misconduct or corruption in awarding contracts. He also promised to take legal action against Dataphyte if the research results were false. However, to date, no investigation has been launched by the state and Makinde remains in office.
Notebookgate has also led to stronger calls for accountability and transparency from civil society organizations in Oyo. Radio advocacy shows and social media campaigns have been organized 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 also putting fiscal governance under scrutiny,” Oyedeji said.
Dataphyte’s investigation was republished by local and international publications and has encouraged Nigerian journalists to increase coverage of corruption related to the recruitment process. The state information ministry sent Dataphyte a statement seeking to discredit the report and providing additional data to back up its claims. The agency stated that the investigation “reveals a lack of journalistic or investigative rigor.”
“We are baffled that any media outlet would reach conclusions on contract awards without contacting any Oyo State government agency for comment or clarification,” the statement read. In fact, Oyedeji had reached out to state officials for comment in the early stages of the investigation of him, but received no response.
The state’s rebuttal failed, Aloba added. “This [additional] the data only lent credibility to the initial report and provided sufficient material for the second part of the report. However, no further threats of lawsuits have been made since then.”
By the end of 2022, Olanrewaju Oyedeji got a compliment in the 17 Wole Soyinka Awards of Investigative Journalism for its three-part of the series on the violation of contract laws in Oyo State.
Accountability journalism promotes good governance and democracy
Deji Adekunle, an Abuja-based media and data development expert, said data and evidence-based investigations like this are essential to holding power to account. “Procurement stories are the foundation of governance procedures in terms of the services that the government provides to the public,” he explained. “With pieces like this, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability are exposed.”
Adekunle added that championing open data 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 glitches in the system, everyone assumes that everything is fine.”
“Journalists are not activists and they do not prosecute,” Adekunle said. “But when stories like this are made, civil society actors could use them to advocate for better governance procedures and outcomes and to pressure the government to do something about a system.”
On the lessons learned from the #NotebookGate investigation, Aloba said finding the right example to show the connection between procurement irregularities, poor service, corruption and beneficial ownership was important in elevating reporting. “Connecting these big 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 research shows the importance of combining beneficial ownership data and technology. In total, over 100,000 beneficial ownership profile rows (45 mb of data) were parsed using Python to extract information from B2BHint. “A larger percentage of the report was possible because we were able to implement data and technology tools. He also showed that with data journalism we can have the power to be even better accountable,” he said.
Oyedeji’s biggest challenge in the investigation may have been risking going undercover to expose the corruption of the contracts. She disguised herself and took a pseudonym to visit the offices of the companies awarded the contracts to verify their authenticity. In Nigeria, where journalists are increasingly under threat and facing attacks from corrupt companies and government officials, such an adventure could be dangerous.
“In the end,” he said, “it’s a risk worth taking.”
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Patrick Egwu is an award-winning freelance investigative journalist based in Nigeria reporting on global health, conflict and development. Egwu is a 2020 Open Society Foundation Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where he is studying investigative journalism.