Nigeria’s faltering anti-corruption war

The recent suspension of Nigeria’s anti-corruption tsar provides an opportunity to re-assess the country's anti-corruption approach.

Abuja & Environs. Image credit Juliana Rotich via Flickr CC.

On July 7, 2020, the Nigerian Presidency announced the suspension of its anti-corruption czar, Ibrahim Magu. Hours before, Magu had been forcefully “detained” and made to face a panel in the President’s official workplace and residence, Aso Rock. The Nigerian Presidency’s suspension of Magu and the tepid reaction to this decision both highlights the cyclical nature of Nigeria’s anti-corruption drive, but might also signal its end. Since 2017 Magu has led, albeit in an acting capacity (Magu was twice denied confirmation by Nigeria’s Senate), the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The agency has been at the forefront of Nigeria’s anti-corruption efforts since its formation in 2003. Despite enduring popular support for anti-corruption, the commission’s history, as with many of Nigeria’s other anti-corruption efforts, has been marked by inconsistency and has been unable to make any long-lasting effects on the country’s endemic corruption. While most of the commentary on the arrest of Magu has rightly focused on the government’s disregard for due process or has focused on the power play within the Presidency, these analyses offer a snapshot but fail to proffer a historical explanation for the predictable manner that various administrations, especially in the fourth republic (since the end of military dictatorship in 1999) have treated corruption.

The Nigeria’s government’s approach to tackling corruption has often been phrased as a “war”. However, in reality, Nigeria has rarely sought to battle the act in its entirety; rather it has focused on selectively enforcing anti-corruption laws aimed at an elite that it is opposed to. In 2015, Nigeria looked to turn the corner with the election of Muhammadu Buhari as President, dislodging a 16-year federal incumbency that had held steady since the country’s return to democracy. Few Nigerian politicians possess a higher degree of valence on the issue of corruption than Buhari. His ownership of anti-corruption as a cause stems from his actions as head of state for a brief period in the mid 1980s (these included freezing bank accounts and military tribunals for public officials accused of corruption) and his austere lifestyle afterwards. His promise to rid the country of corruption seemed to herald a change in Nigeria’s anti-corruption approach. This time it is different: Quite the reverse has ensued as Buhari has made no significant deviation in the tactics employed by previous Nigerian governments on the issue.

Traditionally, the Nigerian anti-corruption approach has often swayed between three approaches: ratifying good governance measures, enacting mass mobilization programs, and a reliance on anti-corruption fighters.

The first (ratifying good governance measures) focuses on adopting legal measures such as public procurement rules that establish procedures for public official behavior, with the creation of agencies with the wherewithal to punish those that err. For instance, the Buhari administration’s commitment to the Treasury Single Account, which consolidates and merges all government revenue within a single central bank account signifies the former. This approach usually confirms to “best global practices” or treatises pushed forward by multinational actors such as NGOs, development finance institutions, and global charters. Institutions such as the Nigeria Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) largely owe their existence to such measures. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a G7 initiative whose remit was expanded in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US to counter money laundering and terrorism financing, largely led to the creation of the unit alongside the threat of a blacklist of the country on international financial transactions. The unit has been pivotal not only in providing information to tackle suspicious money flows, but has recently sought to end the nefarious practice of state governments withholding or deducting funds allocated to the local government by the federal governments. Previously, state governments received federal allocations for both themselves and the local governments within them. However, state governments have treated these funds as their prerogative and often spent them with little or no recourse to the original intent of these funds. However, the success of this approach has been limited as Nigeria’s political elite have shown themselves adroit at moving toward reforms suggested or foisted on them by external forces, only to renege or find a way to bypass such commitments when it comes to implementation.

The second approach adopted to fix corruption is through mass mobilization programs, but limited to the messaging and campaigns aspect, often run by the country’s anti-corruption agencies and the National Orientation Agency. The media campaigns that accompany them often consist of tough and aggressive language intended to brook no room for disagreement or noncompliance.

In the run up to the 2015 elections, coverage of the then-opposition candidate, Buhari, provided an avenue to reappraise the achievements of his short-lived military administration in the 1980s. The flagship policy of that administration, the “War Against Indiscipline,” was a mass mobilization social orientation program intended to discourage certain “social vices.” The program administered by government officials introduced and enforced draconian legislation to “restore orderliness” to Nigerians. They included 21-year prison sentences for students cheating on exams, the death penalty for drug offenses or soldiers whipping commuters at taxi ranks for not forming straight lines. Its focus on corruption, specifically on the corrupt everyday activities that Nigerians engaged in, made it initially popular among the masses until its heavy-handedness led to it rapidly becoming unpopular before the regime fell. While the program itself was neutered then scrapped by a successive government, subsequent governments, both civilian and military, have sought to borrow elements of this approach, mostly evidently its’ anti-corruption messaging and orientation campaigns. The main flaw of the mass mobilization approach is the fact that it ignores the fact that the insidious cycle of corruption is spun and kept turning by the political elite. Consequently, a political elite that seeks to wean Nigerians off corruption has shown no disposition toward changing their behavior.

The weariness of Nigerians to this approach was made evident with the most recent iteration. The “Change Begins With Me” orientation program launched by the current Buhari administration failed to secure any public goodwill as few Nigerians believe that the government possessed the political will to tackle corruption within the political elite or that the elite were willing to change their behavior. For instance, after the launch of this orientation program, President Buhari was shown to dither after his then Secretary General of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, was implicated in a corruption scandal. The President’s initial decision to back the appointee against the allegations by the Senate, furthered by the fact that the eventual decision to terminate his appointment was made after a six month long committee headed by the Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, provided indications of unwillingness to tackle corruption within his camp. In comparison to this, it took less than a fortnight to detain, suspend, and fire Magu.

The third and final approach to Nigeria’s anti-corruption efforts is its recruitment of Elliot Ness-like figures to lead its anti-corruption efforts. Eliot Ness led the famous Untouchables, the law enforcement team that brought down Al Capone and enforced prohibition in Chicago. The pioneer chair of the EFCC, Nuhu Ribadu, a police prosecutor, has been the standard that successive anti-corruption chiefs must aspire to. Ribadu was popular among international donors, civil society, and the press.

The anti-corruption war Ribadu waged from his position at the EFCC led to the arrest and conviction of powerful members of the elite, ranging from fraudsters who had avoided foreign law enforcement agencies, bank executives who had misappropriated shareholder funds, state governors, and even his boss the Inspector General of Police. Other high-profile Ness-style players that have sought to tackle corruption since Nigeria’s return to democracy have included ministers such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at certain periods, and arguably, even Buhari himself.

Nigeria is not alone in applying this approach to fighting graft, and it shares similarities with two other African countries that are also significant economic players on the continent, Kenya and South Africa. In her book on John Githongo, Kenya’s own anti-corruption crusader, the journalist Michaela Wrong argued that the promise for the African continent getting it right on corruption, rested on a tripod of countries that consisted of Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. The assertion seemed prescient as the end of the Cold War had changed the priorities of Western financial institutions, such as the World Bank. James Wolfensohn, World Bank President (1995 – 2005) regarded corruption as a development issue and sought to partner with recipient countries to tackle it. His successor, Paul Wolfowitz (2005 – 2007) pushed the issue to the top of his agenda during his short-lived stint.  Furthermore, during this policy shift, the emergence of a different breed of politicians in these countries seemed to herald some promise. Newly elected presidents Olusegun Obasanjo (1999), Mwai Kibaki (1999) and Thabo Mbeki (1999), all seemed to differ from their predecessors and identified corruption as an issue. Each of them bolstered this fight with Ness-like figures, Nuhu Ribadu (Nigeria), John Githongo (Kenya) and Vusi Pkoli (South Africa). The end results were strikingly similar, with initial successes being recorded until these crusaders were forced to prematurely end their efforts as the political will afforded them to tackle corruption waned.

Historically, the Nigerian government has sought to use these approaches concurrently or separately, and even within the administrations that enact them these efforts are rarely sustained. After his 2015 first term, Buhari sought re-election in 2019, and his campaign was largely silent on the issue of corruption. Any mentions were limited to celebrating the implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA) as a “blow against corruption.” His focus on the use of good governance reforms to tackle graft is far below the standards Nigerians expect, especially since it was the approach that his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, claimed to have implemented. In fact, the TSA had begun gradual implementation and was conceptualized by that administration. There is a clear and deserving focus on the high-level corruption perpetuated by Nigeria’s political elite and the measure of an effective anti-corruption approach is ensuring that the most visible scandals that have plagued the country are resolved through both the recovery of stolen funds and an effective prosecution of the participants.

In essence, promises by the President to strike a decisive blow against corruption have largely gone unmet and few believe that this is likely to change, especially since his actions will have to begin within many of the stakeholders within his party and cabinet. Nigeria’s biggest strides in its anti-corruption efforts have historically occurred as a result of external pressure exerted on the ruling elite. The economic crisis of the 1980s led to the welcoming of the war against indiscipline, the blacklisting of Nigeria by the FATF led to the formation of the NFIU and the EFCC, and Nigeria’s perceived entry into its deepest recession in recent years might be the most potent force in its efforts against corruption. Rooting out corruption is an admirable priority; however, the selection of the same tactics, their lackluster application, and the general unwillingness to try any new methods leads to the belief that Nigeria’s political elite have no genuine will to address corruption in order to be accountable to all Nigerians.

Further Reading

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Shell brought me here

A BBC reporter visits the old fields of southeast Nigeria, the site of massive exploitation by Shell Oil–in a helicopter provided by Shell.