Want to fight corruption? Follow the money.

A group in Nigeria is mining government databases and social media to empower people in rural communities to root out corruption and make sure promises are kept.

The work, called Follow the Money, is a campaign from Connected Development, a nonprofit started by two Nigerian activists, Hamzat Lawal and Oludotun Babayemi, who believe government data should be freely available to citizens.

Made up of journalists, “data wranglers” and legal and information experts, Follow the Money scours publicly available government information to uncover what money is supposed to go where and uses Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act to get information that is less readily available.

The group is currently tracking these funds:

  • $1.5 million earmarked for the improvement of health centers in Enugu state in southeastern Nigeria.
  • $46,740 promised for the construction of a health center in the town of Wase in Nigeria’s Plateau state, located in the center of the country.
  • $63,000 budgeted for building classrooms in Tongo in the Gombe state in northeastern Nigeria. 

Too often, says Lawal, funds like these are stolen or redirected from their promised purpose.

Pupils operating computers (Refined Creative)
A student at Bagega’s primary school on a new computer that was part of Follow the Money’s advocacy campaign (Refined Creative)

Lawal cites a municipal project for which the government had agreed to pay each local laborer 1,500 Nigerian naira, the equivalent of $5, but the government official tried to pay each laborer 150N, or 50 cents.

A local laborer confronted the official and said, “According to information Follow the Money shared with us, I’m meant to get 1,500N for my services. Please give me this money.”

If he “hadn’t been empowered, the local government official would be keeping 1,000N for every laborer,” Lawal said.

Lawal and Babayemi started Follow the Money in 2012 when none of the $4 million promised by international organizations and Nigeria’s government came to the village of Bagega after the worst known epidemic of lead poisoning in the Zamfara state in northern Nigeria.

Using the hashtag #SaveBagega, Follow the Money initiated a social media campaign that brought the village’s plight international attention. This included advocating directly on then-President Goodluck Jonathan’s Facebook page. Within 48 hours, the government released $5.4 million for Bagega. Follow the Money tracked the released funds until July 2013, when the lead remediation in Bagega was finally completed.

People in a room talking (Refined Creative)
Hamzat Lawal meeting with a mining outpost officer during Follow the Money’s community outreach in northern Nigeria (Refined Creative)

Increasingly, the group can prevent corruption before it happens, Lawal says. “We use a lot of social media pressure. We usually direct our campaigns straight to the president. The president will delegate, probably to the minister of finance, to release the actual funds,” he said.

Lawal says that the finance minister can then tell corrupt politicians, “‘Follow the Money’s already on my case; there’s no way that these funds can go into anyone’s pocket.’ And that is how we follow the money from the capital to the community.”