RUNKUSAWA, KANO: She wipes tears from her eyes with a handkerchief, her crackling voice communicating deep pain as she recalls how she lost Aminatu, her 16-year-old daughter, due to lack of access to water in her community.
"A neighbour and I lost two children [about three years ago]. We sent them out to [get] water from a stream about 40 kilometres from their homes, and they didn't come back. Until now, we don't know their whereabouts," 55-year-old Talatu Abubakar explained.
Abubakar lives in Runkusawa, a remote community in Kumbotso Local Government Area of Kano State, which relied on a dirty stream for drinking and other domestic use. But her daughter's disappearance probably never would have happened had a company contracted in 2016 to drill a borehole in the community not abandoned the project halfway for five years.
The abandoned borehole construction was awarded as a constituency project nominated by Mannir Babba, a lawmaker representing Kumbotso federal constituency at the House of Representatives.
Constituency or zonal intervention projects are development initiatives nominated by federal lawmakers in Nigeria - House of Representatives members (reps) and senators. Federal ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) execute the projects on lawmakers' behalf in their constituencies.
Introduced by the federal government in 1999 to bring needed infrastructural development to people at the grassroots by allocating constituency funds to each of the serving 109 senators and 360 reps from the 36 states and the federal capital yearly, constituency projects could cover anything from education, water, healthcare and other needs.
Executing ministries implement projects worth about N200 million on behalf of each senator yearly and half that amount per rep. These funds are included in each year's national budget and released to the ministries. Every year, about N100 billion goes into constituency projects.
The process involves a senator or rep nominating a project to the federal government to execute in their constituency. The central government directs the lawmakers to the various MDAs to which it releases funds for execution. The MDAs get biddings from contractors across the states and award them the projects.
Executing ministries give regular project execution updates to the lawmaker, who is also expected to inspect the projects and follow up on the ministry and contractor to ensure prompt and standard execution.
But since 1999, constituency projects have been legislators' conduits for embezzling public funds in collaboration with top ministry officials.
Sometimes, lawmakers use their self-founded companies to bid for contracts against the spellings of the Public Procurement Act. When this is the case, the company sometimes merely begins the project, abandons it halfway, and diverts the funds.
Other times, lawmakers connive with officials at the supervising ministries to award contracts to non-existent contractors.
But a project can also be abandoned or not commenced, not because of the lawmaker's corrupt manipulations but because the supervising ministry failed to release the funds due to bureaucratic processes.
Between January 2020 and June 2021, out of 1439 constituency projects awarded, about 288 of them worth N2.1 billion ($4.9 million) were never started, and 21 were abandoned, according to a 2022 report by BudgIT, a local social advocacy group.
In the past ten years, the federal government has released one trillion naira ($2.3 billion) for constituency projects, yet evidence of delivery is minimal, complained President Muhammadu Buhari in early 2022.
Equipping citizens to track projects
To fight corruption surrounding constituency projects, in 2019, the Resource Center for Human Rights and Civic Education or CHRICED started an initiative to train community youths to track abandoned projects, ensure transparency, and hold legislators accountable in Kano.
It partnered with the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission (ICPC), Nigeria's anti-graft agency investigating procedures that aid corruption in public institutions, and trained 267 youths in Kano's local government areas for two weeks in public contract procurement processes and projects tracking.
After the training, CHRICED gave the youths project documents obtained through the ICPC. With the papers, constituency youths can locate and check the status of projects. When they trace a project that has not commenced or an abandoned one for which funding had been released, they petition their representatives and the executing ministry.
The nonprofit also publishes the findings across its social media handles and engages the public to discuss them during its Arewa FM (Kano) radio program every Thursday (8 to 9 am).
Next, CHRICED invites the legislator concerned to what it calls "accountability report back sessions", where the representative hears the findings of the youths firsthand in the presence of ICPC agents and the media.
The legislator is made to explain why the project allocation is delayed or why a commenced project was abandoned. Where a lawmaker proves that the delay or abandonment was due to the ministry's non-release or half-release of project funds, the nonprofit asks the lawmaker to follow up on the ministry concerned and does the same through petitions.
But if there is proof that a lawmaker was involved in corruption, ICPC investigates further for possible prosecution.
Most of the time, after making findings public, petitioning ministries and contractors, and inviting the lawmaker concerned to explain why a project was abandoned, all parties quietly take action to complete pending projects.
About 78 out of 126 tracked abandoned projects have been completed through this process between 2020 and 2021. The abandoned borehole in Runkusawa, where Abubakar (who lost her daughter) lives, was tracked and completed in December 2021.
"Our children are no longer walking long distances before fetching water," Abubakar said, implying that her community now has access to clean water.
Not all 126 tracked projects have been completed because of "...lack of cooperation from some government agencies and public officials," said Omoniyi Adewoye, CHRICED's projects officer. "[They] are often unwilling to release relevant information like projects' status, the amount released, and contractors' details."
But Adewoye believes that with over 100 citizens trained to track projects and demand accountability in Kano, it would be difficult for their representatives to connive with contractors and ministry officials to divert constituency funds in the future.
"We've done our part as a civil society organisation by enlightening the citizens, providing them with relevant information and platforms to make accountability demands. It's left for them to use the information given to them by holding their representatives to account," he said.
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.