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In Nigeria, Many Anticorruption Policies—and Lots of Corruption, Too

A man on a ladder holding a street lamp
A worker sets up a street lamp in the Oshodi district of Lagos, Nigeria, on June 6, 2015. Eliminating corruption in Nigeria’s power sector is a top priority of the government. © Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty

British Prime Minister David Cameron made headlines ahead of the much-hyped anticorruption summit hosted in London last month when a TV crew captured him calling Nigeria and Afghanistan “fantastically corrupt” in a conversation with the Queen and the archbishop of Canterbury.

Less provocative—and therefore receiving less coverage—was the archbishop’s response that, actually, current Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who campaigned on an anticorruption platform, is not corrupt.

In the wake of the Panama Papers leaks, which revealed the role that British banks and tax havens play in sheltering money, the irony of Cameron’s comment was noteworthy. Remarkably, Buhari mostly brushed off questions regarding Cameron’s faux pas, and acknowledged that Nigeria does indeed have a serious problem with corruption. He then used the attention to ask not for an apology, but for the swift return of proven stolen assets believed to be hidden in UK banks. (Nigeria is seeking to recover more than $10 billion in cash and assets lost through graft.)

Like other countries at the summit, Nigeria also made substantial commitments to crack down on corruption, including with stricter beneficial ownership disclosure legislation, improvement in the transparency of public procurement processes, and greater adherence to the principles and processes supported by the Open Government Partnership, through which 69 countries have agreed to make their governments more accountable.

However, given the pervasiveness of corruption in the country, Nigeria needs more than just commitments. Anticorruption efforts by the Buhari administration in its first year have been slow. The success of these efforts depends on getting the requisite public buy-in—the war on corruption cannot be fought by Buhari alone.

Although most Nigerians agree corruption is endemic, in most cases they also participate in small-scale transactional practices that undermine the country. In order for progress to be made, Nigerians must abstain from corruption in every form, not just condemn it.

The country’s value system—which celebrates even wealth obtained by questionable means—is greatly flawed. Strategic and effective public education must be developed to ensure a change of attitude and show people the true and damaging effects of corruption. Young people, in particular, should be brought on board to begin to build a new culture.

For starters, Nigeria’s commitments at the summit need to be incorporated into a national anticorruption strategy that focuses on key areas, such as public procurement, asset recovery, enforcement of existing laws, and revitalization of existing agencies.

In Nigeria, as in many other West African countries, most government funds are spent on public procurement—things like infrastructure, health and educational supplies, and agricultural materials. Cases of ghost workers and padded budgets show how pervasive corruption is in public spending. Buhari should fulfill his campaign promise to approve spending through the National Council on Public Procurement (NCPP), rather than the National Executive Council, which currently approves bids without oversight.

Another factor hampering asset recovery and faith in government actions in Nigeria is that there is no publicly available data on the physical and financial assets that have been recovered inside or outside the country. Without those numbers, it’s impossible to know who stole what, how much of it has been recovered, or where the recovered assets have been used. Buhari must make good on his pledge to implement internationally endorsed guidelines for the accountable management of returned stolen assets.

One existing law can be a big help as Nigeria steps up its fight against corruption. The Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015 limits the use of appeals in criminal trials, increases coordination among justice institutions, and creates new pretrial management techniques that allow faster commencement of substantive trials. The law was passed because ineffective coordination and weak criminal procedures have enabled lawyers to undermine processes. Implementation has been slow, however.

Buhari should also coordinate and strengthen agencies whose purview includes corruption. Nigeria has no less than five commissions, bureaus, and tribunals that have the power to investigate and prosecute corrupt practices. But the current administrative set-up—including questions about the role of the attorney general in cases brought by other agencies—makes coordination extremely difficult. It is important to provide clear administrative protocols that make for more effective and cordial relationships among these institutions.

No matter how good Buhari’s strategy is, synergy and partnerships throughout the country are vital to his anticorruption crusade. The president must counter the narrative that the anticorruption war is only being waged in the executive branch.

Buhari has promised to link the public and private sectors in his efforts to ensure information sharing between law enforcement and the financial sector. He needs to do so soon. But first he must enlist the help of his countrymen and women and impress upon them the urgency of the cause. Without their support, a more open and accountable Nigeria will remain a fantasy. 

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