Evelyn Groenink

Moving beyond Groundhog Day

How to go deeper into state dysfunctionality and widen impact for change through pan-African focus and collaboration.

The African Investigative Journalism Conference kicks off this week. Below is ZAM investigations editor Evelyn Groenink's input for the transnational collaborative journalism session on Friday 15 October. Stay tuned for outcomes of the session and selected outcomes of the conference to be reported here next week.

I. Introduction

The following is a list of investigative exposés recently done by investigative journalists on the African continent.

  • State budgets are allocated to shady companies;
  • Overpriced infrastructure projects are started with great fanfare, then crumble;
  • The overpriced slice benefits the ruling party
  • Natural resources are sold out to fill private pockets;
  • Development aid disappears;
  • Politicians and high-level civil servants become mysteriously wealthy in short spaces of time;
  • Government somehow can’t pay budgeted salaries to nurses or teachers;
  • Health departments’ supply to clinics is lackadaisical and patients have to pay for treatments that are supposed to be free;
  • Conversely, medical waste is not collected and poses dangers to the public
  • Civil servants extort the public;
  • Police is criminalised and abuses the public
  • Lack of regulation and mismanagement allow for the sale of expired food and fake medicines;
  • The same causes unrestricted pollution
  • The same allows for licensing of charlatan doctors, unqualified teaching facilities, etc
  • State institutions can’t deliver water or electricity (or much else).

These stories are often very well done. Based on hard skills like data mining, surveying, OSINT, undercover observation and follow-the-money tricks of the trade, they have gotten well-deserved attention. Yet, many of us have started experiencing something akin to what happens in the movie Groundhog Day. ‘We write about procurement fraud,’ in the words of Joy Kirigia of Kenya’s Africa Uncensored. ‘And next thing you write it again. At best, the person who was responsible gets moved to a different department. But on the whole nothing changes.’ Of course, scandals happen all over the world: corruption and crime are everywhere. But in Africa, in many instances, the ills appear to be the norm, and ‘normal’ function is often exceptional.

This tip sheet tries to understand why this is, and asks how we as investigative journalists could better interrogate (and hopefully impact on) the status quo, thereby moving towards fundamental, structural solutions.

II. Understanding context and history

If it is true that all or many of the above ills regularly manifest in all our countries, why is this so? And how do we interrogate this context beyond (often repeatedly) exposing incidents?

The Democracy in Africa research centre (democracyinafrica.org) recently did two illuminating reports on the status quo of many states in Africa. These may help us understand this continent’s context and history a bit more.

  1. Democracy Capture Report
  2. The Shadow State in Africa Report

They deserve a close and full reading, but, in short, they explain how the state in many countries in post-colonial Africa has been captured by a political elite together with often shady private networks.

Another interesting read in this respect is a (now 40+ year-old) letter from a Tanzanian scholar, which was written to Robert Mugabe when the latter assumed power in 1980. It was recently republished by Zimbabwean colleague Hopewell Chin’ono).

It is not known why Mugabe never listened to the advice, but South African William Gumede’s analysis of how colonial trauma still affects Africa’s leaders may also be interesting in this respect.

Other interesting reads in this context are Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject and the Moral Economy of Elections in Africa by Cheeseman et al.

Applying this pan-African context and history to our investigations may help provide a wider scope and more meaning; it may help us to move beyond the incidental corruption scandal to interrogating the underlying systemic problems.

III. Understanding governance

How does a fish investigate water? Power and governance are all around us. We are used to our systems, which is a problem when it comes to interrogating these as systems. To compare something that is systemically dysfunctional, we need an understanding of functionality. For example, if we do a story about failing electricity distribution, we should first educate ourselves on how a state power enterprise should go about generating electricity, distributing it, and maintaining power infrastructure.

Our stories often stop by noting the problem, the despair of the community, and some indications of corruption. But what if we would ask the nitty-gritty questions? How was/is the plant supposed to work? With which engineers? Which tools? Through which cables? Was there a maintenance plan? A cleaning plan? Were there salaries for staff? How was staff recruited and on the basis of which skills? Who supervised them and how? How was bad performance discouraged and good performance incentivised?

I don’t mean to say that we should reschool ourselves to become business and management graduates. A lot of expertise on this exists in academia, for example at the above mentioned Democracy in Africa centre and at the Public Administration Research Centre (PARI) in South Africa. These centres are usually very willing to help and advise.

Leaning on management and governance expertise we could expose more than the symptoms of the problem and get all the way to the mismanagement at the very top. We might also get beyond the suspicion of corruption to the mechanisms of dysfunctionality. (Often, dysfunctionality comes before and even creates the conditions for corruption, since chaotic systems practically leak opportunities to waste and steal. Conversely, those of ill intent often sabotage working systems to create opportunities for theft on purpose.)

In its recent Kleptocracy series, the ZAM network tried to make a start with investigating the mechanisms that create opportunities to steal, and to talk to state authorities about that, in ten African countries. Read the series on ZAM Magazine.

IV. Following up on accountability

We still didn’t get it fully right, though. In a webinar with ZAM Kleptocracy series participants from Nigeria, Mozambique, Central African Republic, Uganda, Mali, and Liberia*, virtually all admitted that they didn’t get as far as they hoped. A Nigerian reporter narrated how the corrupt government department that he exposed stopped demanding bribes from the public for exactly two months, then reverted to previous practice. He now wants to follow up by mapping the extortionist department from region to region. He also wants to interrogate the top levels at the ministry (another story in the series showed that the top level is stealing way more state money than the lower levels are extorting from the public). A Mozambican reporter stated that he would need to travel to the capital to interrogate the top ruling party people at the head of the kleptocrat practices he unearthed.

ZAM now hopes to add width to such (and new) investigations by collaborating with colleagues across Africa. In addition, we want to seek coalitions with the public, both nationally and internationally and extend our accountability interviews to international partners donors and associates of African governments.

V. Moving toward Pan-African collaboration

ZAM would like to initiate a Pan-African collaboration between colleagues, centres and newsrooms aimed at providing a platform from where to interrogate (parts of) the state and public service in each participating country.

This platform could envisagedly:

  • Go beyond the scandals. Interrogate issues, not incidents. Ask: what service do people need and is it working?
  • Crowdsource experiences with a particular public service, like a hospital, a water plant or a municipality (exit surveys, community breakdown data)
  • Get at it from different perspectives: community, staff, unions, authorities. Get into community service history, consult NGOs
  • Check budget vs output of that service: who gets salary for what? (‘So many people get salaries, yet there is no water?’)
  • Check documents and annual reports, skill set of staff, budget priorities; check breakdowns against how the service organises maintenance/replenishment
  • Ask the hard questions: you really spend 60 % of money on that? You outsource that? Why you have a new thing and you don’t maintain it?
  • Take answers back to community (NB: they might be told they are doing something wrong); then return with them when they try to do it ‘right’, document that experience, too)
  • Incessantly build national and international audience engagement by using clips, illustrations, infographics, hashtags and the like, in addition to text
  • Equally incessantly keep knocking on doors for accountability
  • In case of no one at the relevant department picking up the phone: involve audiences/communities in going physically to ask questions (like BBC Africa Eye did with Nigerian pensions)
  • Interrogate all the levels way to the top in participating countries; work with and get info from Good Civil Servants (phone accountable authorities centrally in cases where they hide from local journalists)
  • Compare with places where things DO work: what are they doing differently?
  • Interrogate donors and partner countries that support this service (ZAM and other centres based in relevant countries can be used for such international contacts and interviews )
  • Combine editorial services as needed
  • Publish together across several African countries (in each main language) and with media outside the continent
  • Seek alliances with likeminded media organisations and civil society organisations internationally.

*(Colleagues from Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe also participated in the series but not in the webinar).

Check the AIJC here

Find the collaborative journalism session on Friday 15 October here. All AIJC sessions can be watched on YouTube later. The videos will be available via the AIJC2021 channel which according to the organisers will be up in a day or two.