Nigeria’s fight against corruption – Myth or renewed hope? – by Lagun Akinloye
The assent of Muhammadu Buhari to the Nigerian presidency brought with it renewed hope for Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation. But after a month in power, Nigerians and observers alike wait with a mix of anticipation and frustration at the slow pace of the Buhari government’s direction, with ministerial and government appointments yet to be announced and the country seemingly adrift.
The ills of political instability, deficient infrastructure and a sharp economic downturn occasioned by the fall in oil prices have made President Buhari’s task of salvaging Nigeria a more arduous one. And whilst he continues to consult power brokers and policy advisors over the proposed shape of his administration, action has yet to be directed towards the country’s biggest issue – corruption.
“Corruption in Nigeria is not just endemic, but has become institutionalised. Until the country gets serious about strengthening its institutions, especially in key areas of the economy, this is unlikely to change” says Lanre Akinola, former editor of the Financial Times’s publication “˜This Is Africa’.
An estimated $400bn of oil revenue has been stolen or misspent since Nigeria’s independence in 1960. Buhari, a known anti-corruption crusader, will need to stem the tide of graft and change the nation’s mentality towards corruption if he is to achieve the desired results and legitimacy his government badly needs.
Paying lip service
Successive governments since the return to democracy in 1999 have attempted to fight corruption, with varying degrees of success. The creation of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in 2003 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo gave his administration a strong anti-graft posture. But Obasanjo’s grip over the organisation turned the agency into another tool of maintaining and exerting influence and power.
Nevertheless, the EFCC during the Obasanjo administration, led by maverick crime fighter Nuhu Ribadu, managed to prosecute and convict a number of high profile corrupt individuals, including the Inspector General of Police, bank chief executives and state governors.
The anti-corruption momentum began to wane under the stewardship of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who would allow his government to be infiltrated by powerful and corrupt elements who demanded he turn a blind eye to graft and water down the EFCC as payback for their political support in the 2007 elections.
The administration of Goodluck Jonathan fared no better as it was engulfed in numerous scandals, including the $8bn fuel subsidy overpayments in 2012 and the unremitted funds to the state coffers by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, which former Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi estimated at $20bn. Both were seamlessly swept under the carpet, with the EFCC’s effectiveness in securing high profile convictions of society’s “˜big men’ becoming non-existent.
The preference for influence and favour over justice and accountability seeped into all crevices of national life with corruption becoming the unavoidable norm.
“If we look at our society today, we have almost resigned to corruption” stated Vice President Yemi Osibanjo at the Christopher Kolade Lecture on Business Integrity held in June 2015. The former President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Peter Esele, complained that “Our culture encourages corruption, as painful as it may sound”.
The Buhari effect
President Buhari is often called Mai Gaskiya, the Hausa phrase for “The Honest One”, by his teeming number of supporters in the north. Whilst the aura of incorruptibility continues to favour him in the eyes of Nigerians, will that be enough to change the attitudes of politicians, businessmen, police and the general populace?
The EFCC seems to have received the memo and have abruptly woken from its long slumber with a spate of arrests in recent weeks, which include those of former governors of Imo and Jigawa States, Ikedi Ohakim and Sule Lamido, both of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP). They are accused of money laundering, embezzlement and misappropriation of funds running into the billions of naira.
This signals either the return of politically motived arrests or a change in attitude towards corrupt former political office holders, which is certain to have positive implications.
The arraignment of 16 staff of the Central Bank of Nigeria on charges relating to a N8bn ($40m) currency scam adds further weight to the ‘Buhari factor’ enforcing a new direction relating to graft. The EFCC’s latest actions can also be seen cynically as a last minute attempt by EFCC Chairman Lamorde to project himself favourably in the eyes of the president in the hope of holding onto his job, even if his proactivity might have arrived too late.
In a recent meeting with APC governors, Buhari reiterated his campaign promise that he will recover billions of dollars’ worth of stolen funds, within and outside the country, within the next three months. He also spoke boldly of the United States and the international community’s offer of assistance.
Buhari must ensure he keeps to his promises to avoid tainting his government so early on in the administration. If he doesn’t, it would play into the hands of the resurgent PDP, who are fresh from gaining a foothold in the national assembly after clinching the position of deputy senate president, upsetting the APC’s political calculations.
Saving a nation
The cost of corruption to Nigeria has a knock on effect to all aspects of economic and social activity, as foreign and local investors shy away from legitimate business opportunities. The growth of medium and small scale enterprises are also hampered due to the unconducive environment for growth caused by the chronic lack of power generation and unregulated institutions. Billions of Naira are fritted away through the awarding of frivolous contracts at federal and state level whilst numerous “˜showpiece’ projects remain uncompleted.
“The endemic corruption in Nigeria cannot be blamed entirely on one sector of society. The root causes lie mainly in its system of governance, which has for a long time been characterised by opacity, lack of accountability and impunity”, says Samuel Kaninda, Regional Coordinator-West Africa for Transparency International.
The courts and the justice system, whose remit is to be the final arbitrators in the fight against corruption, all too often seem like enablers, whilst the customs, immigration, police and the prison service fell prey to the ills of graft as early as the 1970’s.
Nigeria’s lacklustre anti-corruption institutions have not been amended or updated in the last 10 years, and according to Kaninda, “Nigeria needs stronger anti-corruption laws and institutions, increased transparency and accountability measures”.
Akinola believes “With Buhari, perhaps Nigeria has first head of state since he was last in power 30 years ago who can claim to meaningfully oppose corruption. If anyone in the country has the stomach for it, it is him.”
Yet questions remain whether Buhari has the political will to depart from the antecedents of past presidents and unleash a wholescale clean-up campaign of corrupt institutions and their proprietors. A deep clean of the nation’s eroded moral fabric will surely unearth various scandals and will make the president some powerful enemies, even within his own party.
The fight against corruption could break the Buhari presidency and fracture the APC or finally unlock Nigeria’s true potential.
Lagun Akinloye is a journalist and Nigerian political analyst.