How investigative journalists exposed Covid-19 corrupt shenanigans

By Reggy Moalusi

Millions of dollars raised to help fight and alleviate the Coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria could not be accounted for when investigative journalists started asking questions regarding expenditure and where it went to.

This was one of the assertions made by Aderemi Ojenkule, a data journalist with Dataphyte in Nigeria. Ojenkule and his colleagues, like most investigative journalists around the world, started digging deep and asking the authorities hard questions, thus exposing the corruption.

“In Nigeria we are a society where transparency is second to none. So, we as Dataphyte decided to check and find out what happened to the money,” Ojenkule told delegates during the virtual sitting of the African Investigative Journalism Conference 2020 (AIJC2020), in a session titled “Corona Corruption” and facilitated by award-winning South African health journalist, Pontsho Pilane.

Ojenkule was joined by South African investigative journalist, Pieter-Louis Myburgh, who works for the Daily Maverick.

Investigating the corruption in Nigeria, Ojenkule said, they found out that the accumulated budget for Covid-19 totalled $95.4 million, both from government and donors, but in the end, they managed to establish and expose that only $80 million was spent. Where did the balance go?

Answering a delegate’s question, Ojenkule said there was no intimidation or threats to his life, though these are normally associated with investigative journalists, rather, he was asked if he can attend a meeting with bribery suggestions proffered.

Ojenkule said they had to continuously interrogate open data, and subsequently asked on red flags. These questions were posed to stakeholders, health practitioners, public officials, and contractors.

In South Africa, Myburgh said investigative journalists’ interest was piqued when the announcement was made of emergency funds that were to be made available for Covid-19. Historically, government procurement has always been associated with corruption.

“The offices of President Cyril Ramaphosa and Zweli Mkhize, the Minister of Health, promised at the beginning of Coronavirus pandemic that any corruption won’t be tolerated. The financial figures came out, and journalists started looking at all the expenses in relation to Personal Protection Equipment (PPE),” said Myburgh, an award-winning journalist, and author of Gangster State, an investigative book focusing on shenanigans in the Free State under the then Premier, Ace Magashule, currently the secretary-general of the governing ANC.

Regarding all the tenders advertised for emergency PPE, Myburgh said it was unfortunate there were opportunistic business people who preyed on the public fiscus as urgency was needed in relation to the Coronavirus.

“The majority of these suppliers were not licensed, not mandated nor did they have the experience in supplying PPE. Most of them became fly by night suppliers of medical goods.

Myburgh said the other glaring discovery in relation to the corruption was the hyper-inflation of prices, in one of the cases seeing a 400% mockup. This, and the use of unregistered suppliers, was evident in most provinces’ departments of health, a discovery made by the Daily Maverick’s investigations. “There are still reams of unprocessed data that we still have to go through.”

He concluded by saying it would be interesting to look at cross-border illicit Covid-19 contracts, collaborating with fellow international investigative journalists.

About the author

Moalusi is South African based editor and media consultant with over 17 years of experience. He is an AIJC2020 Fellow.