Nigeria: fighting corruption

Africa’s intensified effort against corruption has neither prevented billions of dollars from being stolen nor improved its image

By Ini Ekott

Billions of dollars that should provide healthcare and education to some of the world’s poorest people continue to be stolen, but a new class of African leaders is giving a flicker of hope that things could change on the continent. In January 2016, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and his Kenyan counterpart, Uhuru Kenyatta, agreed that graft was the first of three “obstacles to development” they must jointly confront. Terrorism and radicalisation came next, according to a statement released during Mr Buhari’s visit to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. In Uganda, long-serving President Yoweri Museveni pledged to devote his next five-year term to combating corruption in a country ranked by Transparency International as Africa’s 14th most corrupt.

“These two mistakes, corruption and delays in decision making, irritate the public and frustrate the investors,” Mr Museveni told dignitaries on May 12, 2016 according to Reuters. “This time I will act directly so as to discipline the public service as we discipline the army.” Meanwhile, newly elected John Magufuli of Tanzania and Paul Kagame of Rwanda are conducting some of the continent’s most sweeping anti-corruption campaigns. More than before, African leaders are taking a more forceful stance against high-level corruption and have announced ambitious efforts to curb a scourge that has hampered development for years, says Samuel Kaninda, Africa researcher at Transparency International. In the past decade, more African nations introduced reforms to clean up procurement processes, enacted public probity and anti-corruption laws, and established anti-graft agencies.

Those efforts were complemented by international instruments such as the UN Convention against Corruption and the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, devised to combat the menace. In Tanzania, Mr Magufuli is overseeing an aggressive push against entrenched graft. In the early days of his office, he banned business class travel for government officials, and expensive government retreats. The country’s anti-corruption agency, the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau, has arrested top government officials, including lawmakers, who were charged for asking for bribes–the first such high profile case in decades. The new government has said it would open a special court in July to try corruption cases. In Rwanda, corrupt acts such as bribery, common in many African nations, are now punished. Mr Kagame, a former soldier, is pushing reforms anchored on transparency.

In Nigeria, where Mr Buhari said $150 billion in government money had been stolen in the past 10 years, more than a dozen former senior officials have been taken to court. Among them is the former National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, accused of distributing $2.1 billion meant for the purchase of arms for the fight against the Islamist sect Boko Haram to politicians. Former defence chief, Alex Badeh, is also standing trial, accused of buying upmarket properties in Abuja with funds allocated to the Nigerian Air Force. Mr Buhari replaced the head of the anti-corruption body, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), in November 2015 and set up a committee of expert advisers on corruption.

But despite these measures, success against corruption in Africa has been slow. Mr Kaninda says not much has changed because of the lack of political will and leadership to address corruption decisively. “If one looks at the continent as a whole, there is still much to do to achieve substantial positive change that has a direct bearing on the well-being of citizens who are the hardest hit by the damaging effects of corruption,” he told Africa in Fact. Olanrewaju Suraj, who heads the Civil Society Network Against Corruption, CSNAC, a Lagos-based anti-corruption outfit, says a defective electoral process that plagues the continent and encourages leaders to dispense patronage to their cronies, is at the base of the lack of political will to combat corruption.

“The political process is very faulty. These people rose to office through corruption and they manipulate [it] to stay in office, so they cannot be [held] accountable.” The first step to checking corruption must be dealing with a system that makes leaders not accountable to their citizens, he argues. Yet there is a murky side to the effort. Critics say beyond the high-profile arrests, the corruption drive lacks the institutional framework to help reform what has become a culture. The president has not instituted the judicial reforms he promised ahead of the 2015 election to ensure speedy delivery of justice. “The effort of the Buhari administration on corruption is average. There are steps the government should take in addition to what it is currently doing,” Mr Suraj said. One year after taking office, Mr Buhari has yet to set up the national council on procurement, which regulates and checks abuses in government contracts, he added. “The cost of prosecution can be very expensive. A serious government should focus more on prevention,” he said.

Mr Buhari is also accused of going after opposition members while turning a blind eye to his close aides accused of fraud. The most notable is the president’s minister of transport, Chibuike Amaechi, accused of financing the president’s election using state funds from when he was governor of oil-rich Rivers State. The president has also not investigated or punished officials after a scandalous inflation of items in the 2016 national budget. But Mr Buhari denies allegations of bias. “The accusation will be against the law enforcement agencies, but I can assure you I don’t interfere,” he told journalists in London in early May at the anti-corruption summit hosted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr Kaninda said Africa’s anti-corruption effort must start with leaders having the political will at all levels of government to block stealing. “Firstly, there is need for political will and leadership from the highest to the lowest level of government to ensure that the right laws are in place, and that enforcement and oversight institutions are established, adequately resourced and free from political interference and that the rule of law is upheld.

“Secondly, citizens and civil society organisations should create the necessary space to effectively exercise civic oversight on public institutions and hold these to account. Our research has proven that countries where transparent and accountable governance is the order of the day experience lower corruption levels than countries where governance is opaque with no effective accountability mechanisms.” President Buhari has urged the international community to return stolen money to Africa, and to crack down on the safe havens where corrupt leaders stash loots. “When it comes to tackling corruption, the international community has unfortunately looked away for too long. We need to step up and tackle this evil together,” the president told the UK anti-corruption summit attended by other world leaders, including US secretary of state, John Kerry. “I wish to reiterate our demand that the global community must come up with mechanisms for dismantling safe havens for stolen funds and facilitate the return of stolen assets to their countries of origin.”

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Ini Ekott is the deputy managing editor at Premium Times, Nigeria. He has researched and written extensively on governance and leadership in Africa. He is a former Wole Soyinka investigative reporter of the year, and was a member of the global team of journalists that conducted the Pulitzer-winning Panama Papers reporting