Available records show Nigeria’s crude oil production capacity stands at 2.2 million barrels per day even as the country has traditionally been ranked Africa’s largest producer of oil. After decades of exploration, the oil and gas sector has accounted for a significant part of government revenue. But despite such endowment, Nigeria has struggled to cater for millions of its citizens, with the country currently rated as the world capital of extreme poverty.
Worried by this trend, the OrderPaper Advocacy Initiative in collaboration with the Civil Society Steering Committee (CSSC) of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) recently developed Remtrack, an application “to enhance transparency in Nigeria’s extractive industry”, particularly in the petroleum sector.
In this interview with TheCable, Oke Epia, founder and executive director of OrderPaper, said the organisation and its partners hope to use RemTrack to shine the light on a “dark” extractive industry. He said this would be done by putting out NEITI-vetted information about the sector in a user-friendly and easily understandable format in order to trigger the interest of citizens and in the end, enable them to ask the right questions about oil and gas sector.
TheCable: For the benefit of those who haven’t heard about RemTrack, the app launched to monitor the extractive sector, can you please shed more light on it?
The pubic presentation was a culmination of various activities that lasted for about a year and included collaborations and consultations. One of the things we needed to be very careful about is the sanctity and integrity of the data that we have in the app; in processing that data, we wanted to be sure there are no compromises and omissions that will question the credibility of the data that is eventually put out for public engagement. We wanted to ensure it is solid, co-created and meets best practices and standards. It is important that we understand that the apathy of citizens to things that matter including governance is part of why we are where we are. Citizens tend to think, “oh, it is not my business, it is the government’s.” The petroleum industry accounts for much of our foreign earnings, it gives us most of the revenue we use to finance the budget. So, why would you as a citizen not be interested in what happens in that sector? If we are not interested in it, we should have little right to complain about corruption, or why things are not working. So, we need to show interest. And in trying to get people to be interested in that, we thought that a way to do so is through the use of technology. So, how do you put up information about the extractive industry in a way that is attractive to the average man on the street and that everybody is able to use because it appeals to them? RemTrack is one of such tech tools. We thought that by putting citizens in the know about the petroleum sector, they should understand that this is why we are where we are. Getting citizens to know why things have not happened the way they ought to happen is the motivation for RemTrack. When you know, you are able to ask the right questions.
TheCable: Many people believe the oil and gas sector is soaked in corruption. Don’t you think that is the major reason for the apathy by Nigerians?
There is no doubt that corruption is deeply engraved in the system, and there is no illusion that this is going to change overnight. But there has to be a culture of demand-to-know from citizens. But that I ask today and do not get the answer does not mean I should not ask again; I have to keep asking. For example, in most of the recommendations in the NEITI annual reports, you will find them to be a repetition of what was recommended in previous years. Like the last audit, some of them have been long-standing issues. It doesn’t stop NEITI from doing its works, it will continue to make those audits. And more and more people become aware of the intransigence of setting persons and organisations to do the right thing; more and more people begin to ask questions. And because Nigeria is also a global system where there is also pressure from external factors; “you claim to be a transparency champion, you claim to run an anti-corruption administration, then why is this? Why is that? And don’t forget that Nigeria is also signed off to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) processes and principles. It has obligations it has to meet externally. So, if there is some public pressure from the external, and citizens begin to mount pressure from the inside, it is only a matter of time before things begin to move. So, should we be intimidated? Should we keep our mouth shut because the challenges are enormous? No, you start from somewhere. A great way to do it is to democratise the knowledge and open up space for everyone to be able to ask questions geared towards demanding transparency and accountability from actors, those who manage our petroleum sector and solid mineral sector. Demand more transparency from those who are operators and industry players. We need more transparency, we want to see the taxes paid. So that what you say you paid is what the government confirms that it has received. And then we’ll take a step further; this money that you said you have received, what have you done with it? Like I say, it’s our collective resource. Na our oil money. So, this royalty has come, what have you done with the money? Why do we still have broken infrastructure? Why is it so?
TheCable: Aside from the lack of transparency, what are the other challenges plaguing the extractive industry? The picture you painted suggests the situation is very bad; could that be how the system has been structured or simply lack of political will?
Darkness thrives where there is no light. What we want to do is to put the light out there to help dispel the darkness. By putting out information in a user-friendly, easily understandable format, about the petroleum and gas sector, about the oil and mining sectors, citizens become aware of what is rightfully theirs; of what is not working and what should be done to make it work; who is responsible for why things are not working? So these questions have to keep coming. At the end of the day, if it’s a question of political will, you get out of the kitchen if the heat is too much for you. So, people know who is responsible for why things are not working so they can demand change and a new way of doing things. There is a totality of actors that we must continue to interrogate. The challenge about how would you get citizens to engage with this information is the more pertinent question that we need to take. What we want to see happen is a sustained conversation with information that is all the time relevant, with data that all the time have a direct bearing to you as a person, to you as a community, to you as a set of persons or as a nation. So, if the audit reports say XYZ amount of money is what is missing from payments of some entities, you are able to say such money can do this level of infrastructure.
TheCable: Are important information such as Nigeria’s daily oil earnings part of what we will be learning from this platform?
RemTrack will provide an array of information that is relevant to the sector and that is able to be related to everyday life and living conditions in Nigeria? It’s a shame that Nigeria does not know the exact amount of oil it drills; that information is perhaps with the IOCs. So, can we know what they know and democratise that information. Why don’t we have metering at the point of exploration? So we can have a modern technological way everyone else uses to know what exactly they produce. How much are we paying for subsidy? Why do we need to continue to pay for subsidy? Why do we need to continue to do crude oil swap? Who are the greatest beneficiaries of all these transactions in the oil and gas industry? These are the questions that will continue to arise, and once the questions continue to arise, you can relate them to your everyday life. It encourages you to ask questions until the answers you are seeking begin to come in. So, it is a pool of interaction; you raise a question on the app, why is this so? There is a responsibility of certain actors who are seeing what questions you are asking to respond to you. They could ignore you, so you come back again and raise the same question. When you have more people asking the same questions,at the end of the day, the persons involved will say, “look, this is becoming embarrassing.” You know what social media is capable of. It is the power of social media that we want to deploy in the oil and gas sector, in a positive and productive way. RemTrack is not built to hound anybody or any entity, it is a public information platform for people to say what is going on based on the knowledge that they know, and ask the right questions and expect the answers to come in. I must make this point, every data that you have on the app is what has not only been verified but authorised for use. What we are just doing is to process this information in manners that will appeal to the senses, understanding and interests of citizens.
TheCable: It is a good thing you are empowering the public to ask the right questions. But how do you also intend to get those answers they are seeking? Do you have a mechanism in place to make sure the answers come?
RemTrack is a multi-stakeholder platform and has an immense use for citizens engagement on the front end of things. It also has a multi-pronged engagement window at the back-end; built to allow stakeholders to come to reconcile issues and gaps raised in the open space. For instance, NEITI does its audits annually, and within the annual window, it is possible that public pressure could be on certain entities, on certain issues to become resolved. So there’s a window at the back-end of RemTrack that allows that resolution process to go on. That process is able to receive a stamp of reconciliation from the main moderator, NEITI. It can say, “yes, we can confirm that this issue has been resolved.” And then there is a progression from a pending or unresolved issue to a resolved category. And so the public sees, that because of some questions that we asked, because of our demands, there has been some progress. And there could be some accolades to the entities involved. It is a healthy tool of engagement that enables and incentivize citizens to ask the right questions such that there is a healthy pressure brought to bear on those responsible to do the right thing.
TheCable: And what if they don’t want to do the right thing?
If they don’t want to, you keep asking the right questions, you keep on with the pressure. So, you have the carrot and stick; you keep applying the stick which will be calling out companies and agencies that are refusing to do the right thing. If you and I know this money belongs to us and someone is holding it back, we can legitimately demand it. If that is not working, we can escalate the demand. For instance, Nigeria has international obligations and partners it must sell its products. It has treaties and obligations it must meet. If these things become issues that drag, citizens can put the pressure on the government and those external factors will say, “look, you have to sort this out.” There are different fora and different levels, but we do not need to go that far. I believe citizens collectively and continuously asking the right questions will make the government sit up and do the right thing.
TheCable: We’ve seen instances where MDAs refuse to disclose information sought through the FOI act, and even when you go to court, they still don’t reveal the information. Are you saying RemTrack will at some point involve some of these international organisations to make sure compliance from the government institutions you are dealing with?
RemTrack is a tool driven by OrderPaper in collaboration with the civil society steering committee of NEITI which is the body of non-state actors involved in the national stakeholders working group. So, it is not just an OrderPaper thing. This is the entire body of civil societies in Nigeria that has taken ownership of RemTrack and are able to activate local and international measures for public pressure to bear on government entities to do the right thing. So, it is not that RemTrack will escalate these demands, but it is that platform that provides the basis for such escalation.
TheCable: How sustainable is this initiative? What measures are in place to see that in 10 or more years to come, we are still talking about RemTrack?
That is why it is a collective tool owned by everyone which includes citizens and CSOs, who believe the rich extractive resource of this country should be for the benefit of everyone. So, as long as you find the information on RemTrack, you will want to use it to continue to engage the government. So, it is not about sustaining it, but are we going to be tired of asking the right questions? It is not about the tool which has provided access to information. You want to use that information to sustain pressure on the government and non-government actors to do the right thing. So it won’t make sense if you keep complaining of corruption but fail to use the tool to fight it.
TheCable: What has been the response since you launched the initiative?
The response has been that of trying to really understand what the app is all about. You know, projects as this need a lot of sensitisation for people to understand and ask the right questions. So, we are in that phase of creating awareness which also includes this conversation. As part of the awareness drive and sensitisation on RemTrack, OrderPaper would be hosting a first-of-its-kind panel on technology and transparency in extractives at the forthcoming Social Media Week Lagos on February 27. The panel will feature players, experts and advocates in the petroleum sector who will engage the theme of how technology can advance transparency and accountability, anchoring on the RemTrack app we have been talking about. It is expected to be a big deal given what Social Media Week Lagos is all about.