New Internationalist

War on corruption

Issue 385

Nigerians have watched with astonishment as a number of public officers have been dismissed or arrested or put on trial on charges of corruption. One of the most sensational cases is that of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, governor of oil-rich Bayelsa State.

Alamieyeseigha was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport and is on trial on charges of money laundering. Hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling were allegedly found in his suitcases. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Nigerian agency leading what the Government calls a ‘war on corruption’, claims credit for tipping off the British authorities.

Another state governor, arrested in Britain months earlier on similar charges, jumped bail and returned to Nigeria. He continues to govern his state, protected by constitutional immunity. A senior minister, reportedly close to President Obasanjo, died while facing trial for receiving bribes from a French firm contracted to produce national identity cards. The inspector general of police, accused of embezzling millions of dollars of allocations to the police, has been dismissed and is now standing trial. A former minister of education is on trial for literally handing bags of cash to some senators (including the former president of the senate) to protect his ministry’s allocation in the national budget, and the senators are also being prosecuted. Many state and federal officials and senior managers in banks and other private companies are in detention, before the courts or have fled abroad. So great is the fear of the EFCC that, in some states, the big and shiny four-wheel drives of the politically powerful have disappeared into thin air.

These are extraordinary developments in a country where many people have accepted that corruption is a normal way of doing business. Supporters of President Obasanjo say that only a man of enormous courage and conviction could take on this culture of corruption. But it seems many Nigerians are unconvinced. The President has certainly taken on some powerful individuals, yet he has very little popular support to show for it.

Nigerians are sceptical about claims that the President who has caused so much suffering is genuinely interested in fighting corruption

That charge of selective justice, the allegation that there’s one kind of justice for Obasanjo’s supporters and another for his opponents, is one more reason why his ‘war against corruption’ does not seem to have resonated widely among Nigerians. Rumours circulate that even those politicians apparently close to Obasanjo who have been prosecuted have in fact fallen out of favour before the EFCC became interested in them. The depth of corruption over the years has bred so much distrust of political figures that it’s easy to sell the notion that the current Government’s efforts against corruption are really directed at destroying its political opponents.

Obasanjo’s opponents also contest the President’s moral authority to fight corruption. The 19 April 2003 election which earned him a second term was so heavily rigged that wags call it the 419 election, after the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraud. In Rivers State, governed by one of Obasanjo’s staunchest allies, the President received close to 100 per cent of the votes on the electoral register. Challenged by opponents and international observers, he promised to investigate this statistical impossibility but never disclosed the results of his investigation.

For masses of Nigerians life has been very hard under President Obasanjo. The most resented policy of the Government has been the steady increase in the price of petrol, to match price rises in the international market. Nigerians do not accept that they should take the cost of rising global oil prices when their country is one of the largest producers of oil in the world. High fuel costs have resulted in increases in the prices of basic necessities. The public sector and private companies continue to lay off thousands of people every month. Nigerians are sceptical about claims that the President who has caused so much suffering is genuinely interested in fighting corruption. They think that, as with his economic policies, the President’s real motivation is to curry favour with international financial institutions and Western governments. And the President has indeed received far more praise for his war on corruption from institutions such as the World Bank than from his own people.

Attacking the culture of corruption in Nigeria is extremely important; the ‘privatization’ of government by public servants has reached an unacceptable level. But the message to President Obasanjo from his countrymen and women is that his definition of corruption and indeed good governance is too narrow.

If Obasanjo is genuinely interested in delivering good governance, he must widen public participation in how the country is governed, including in deciding how a real war against corruption is to be waged.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos

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