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Magu and Malami

Letter from Abuja: Malami v Magu

4 August 2020

Nigeria, already Africa’s biggest country, is set to overtake China in the world population stakes by the end of the century, according to a study by The Lancet. The prospect does not seem to rattle our short-sighted politicians, but then nor do more immediate challenges: the escalating coronavirus cases and a crumbling economy. Reassuringly, our leaders have stuck to their familiar priorities: stealing money and slagging each other off.

On 6 July, attorney-general Abubakar Malami, a small-town lawyer with much to be small about, ordered the suspension of Ibrahim Magu, our bumbling anti-corruption chief, in connection with allegations of, well, corruption. Questions over what Mr Magu has been doing with assets recovered from fraudsters have swirled around unanswered for years, so the timing is curious.

Malami was in court in London just a week after the suspension, arguing that he had new evidence to prove a ruinous $10bn arbitration award against Nigeria in an aborted gas project should be reviewed because of a fraudulent conspiracy. Much of that evidence was produced by Magu’s team.

Process and Industrial Development, a British Virgin islands company, has among its cheerleaders one Priti Patel. She championed the huge award for an outfit that had never built anything, let alone a gas processing plant, when she was resting as a backbencher. P&ID defends a six-figure payment to the daughter of a once key official (now in jail in Nigeria), just before the vexed contract was signed, as nothing more than honest generosity.

For Malami, it seems Magu, who had the power to make or break political careers with a well-timed probe, needed to go before he could damage some of the contenders for the 2023 elections. Magu’s people suggest Malami is looking to cover his own tracks and has been blowing millions on private jets and an ostentatious, mid-pandemic family wedding.

Malami is nothing if not even-handed. Just as he has been seeking to cancel the P&ID award and at the same time settle out of court, in 2018 he simultaneously argued Nigeria should revoke an oil licence secured by Shell and ENI, the subject of allegations of a billion-dollar bribe – and approve the development of the same block by the same companies.

If the Malami-Magu spat troubles our anti-corruption president, Muhammadu Buhari, he hasn’t said so. But the reclusive retired general rarely speaks in public. Advisers thought in June they had found a wheeze to boost his flagging image by picking Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank mandarin, as Nigeria’s candidate to head the World Trade Organization. Buhari is the target of an international campaign – strong on venom, weak on evidence – to present him as an Islamist fanatic. In giving his backing for a top job for a southern Christian woman, who twice served in rival Peoples Democratic Party administrations and is from our restive Igbo minority, it seemed a way for our northern, Muslim, All Progressives Congress president to prove his critics wrong.

Okonjo-Iweala’s actual record is mixed. She was “Co-ordinating minister for the Economy” in the mass looting that passed for government under Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. Her WTO campaign also raises judgment issues. Okonjo-Iweala has been using top lobbyists from Mercury Public Affairs – the same Washington DC firm behind the same $85,000 a month international campaign accusing Buhari of genocide, and which calls for the break-up of the country she hopes to represent. She has said the Mercury executives helping her campaign are volunteers. So that’s all right then.

Buhari promised to clean up Nigeria. Instead, a lot of politicians and their friends are simply cleaning up. The Fulani people have a saying: “Patience can cook a rock.” But it’s a stone-cold certainty our leaders are in no hurry to change.

This is a version of a report that first appeared on the current print edition of Private Eye magazine.

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