Pandora Papers prove transparency is no longer a choice for Nigeria’s elites
One of the world’s biggest ever data leaks has revealed the lengths some of the richest people on Earth go to hide their money – and with depressing inevitability, Nigerians are amongst those accused of corruption, money laundering and international tax avoidance as a result.
The 336 politicians said to be named in the 12 million documents which make up the so-called Pandora Papers are said to include several high profile Nigerians, including current and former state governors, past and present lawmakers, and even a senior judge – all of whom now stand accused of setting up shadowy shell companies in notorious tax havens to hide their wealth.
Among details to have emerged so far is news that powerful Nigerians have bought UK property valued at £350m using 166 offshore companies.
Peter Obi, ex-governor of Anambra State, was the first to be publicly named in the papers as being connected to a series of offshore entities based in the countries frequently accused of turning a blind eye to – or purposely profiting from – the wealthy and privileged using their financial institutions to hide cash and avoid the attention of the authorities.
Moving money offshore is, of course, not in or of itself illegal – and there are plenty of legitimate reasons for doing it. Not everyone named in the Pandora Papers has done anything wrong – and there is no evidence that Mr Obi, a noted advocate of openness and transparency, has.
But Nigerians are bound to be asking how someone on, say, a governor’s salary equivalent to £5,000 can afford a multi-million pound London property portfolio.
Even if the Nigerians named in the Pandora Papers have done nothing wrong, just being caught up in the scandal diminishes both their reputation and that of our entire political process.
And this is probably why the recently released Nigeria Social Cohesion Survey found that 63 per cent of Nigerians rate our government’s performance as “poor” on corruption.
But for political elites, the most important lesson of the Pandora Papers is this: Transparency is no longer a choice.
This is not the first time the financial secrets of the rich and powerful have been placed in the public domain. It will not be the last, nor will it be the biggest. The Paradise Papers. Offshore Leaks. Panama Papers. Wikileaks.
Your financial shenanigans could be next.
Therefore they need to embrace what I call the transparency dividend – the benefits that can be accrued through total transparency.
Under the radar, Nigeria is taking important strides towards accountability and trust. Indeed, international observers recently described the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission as “robust and effective”.
Much of this has been enabled by digital technology which allows for enhanced record-keeping, more robust financial auditing and greater accessibility of information.
But political individuals need to take the same steps towards transparency as political institutions.
At the digital democracy campaign I lead, we have been trying to give politicians the tools they need to build back the trust which is so badly needed in the Nigerian democratic process and to enhance both their reputation and that of the entire political system.
We have created a free mobile app called Rate Your Leader, which was designed to reconnect electors and the elected, opening direct channels of communication between people and to their elected officials – giving local people the kind of access previously only enjoyed by funders. Our abuse-proof technology ensures that this communication is always civil and courteous.
Rate Your Leader encourages politicians to explain the decisions they have made and the reasons for making them directly to the people they affect. If the voters don’t like the answer they get, they can rate their politicians badly.
This leads to greater levels of trust in a political class that the voters can see are working for them, and accountable to them.
Digital technologies like Rate Your Leader put transparency and accountability and your fingertips. Direct communication from politician to person, peer to peer.
Another recent survey reported that almost half of Nigerians believe that corruption cannot be defeated.
I believe it can be.
But events like the leak of the Pandora Papers do not help. They contribute to a culture in which we expect corruption from our leaders.
This is why politicians need to take simple steps to demonstrate their transparency and accessibility.
If they don’t, it won’t be long before someone else takes steps to demonstrate the opposite.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and creator of the Rate Your Leader app. Follow him on Twitter @JOPopoola