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President Muhammadu Buhari

How much progress has Nigeria made in cracking corruption?

Nigeria has long had a reputation for dishonest dealings. Last year, Muhammadu Buhari was voted back into power, promising to clean up the country in the teeth of some serious opposition. How much progress has been made?

Nigeria is one of the most “fantastically corrupt” countries in the world – that is, in the words of former prime minister David Cameron, who was caught boasting to the Queen in May that a delegation from Nigeria was to attend his flagship anti-corruption summit.

Even Nigeria’s president, 73-year-old former general Muhammadu Buhari, would later agree with Cameron’s description – but not without wryly pointing out that the proceeds of much of that corruption remained secreted away in the UK, making the ex-PM’s on-camera faux pas that bit more embarrassing.

In a much lesser known segment of the ill-famed exchange, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby made an important qualification: Nigeria’s current president was “not actually corrupt”, he told the Queen. In contrast, he was “trying very hard” to rid the country of one of its biggest curses.

Indeed, since Buhari first came to power in the 1980s following a military coup, he has made a name for himself as incorruptible. His 20 months as head of state in 1984-85 were marked by a strict and heavy handed campaign against graft, waste and crime – as well as a poor human rights record. Around 500 politicians, officials and businessmen were thrown in jail.

Decades later and Buhari is back in power, elected on an anti-corruption ticket and, once again, promising to clean up Nigeria. The country’s voters were fed up with business as usual, and his renown for honesty, a modest lifestyle and intolerance of graft gave Buhari’s message credibility.

In March 2015, he became the first opposition candidate in Nigerian history to oust an incumbent via the ballot box. More than one year on, is he living up to his reputation?

The noisiest aspect of Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign harks back to his 1980s modus operandi – the president has again launched a broad-based probe into the graft of previous administrations, which he says left government coffers “virtually empty” by the time he took office. Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has pursued a host of former high ranking government officials and ministers for their alleged role in numerous scandals. Among the biggest are the disappearance of $2bn from funds to fight Boko Haram and the $16.6bn withheld from the government by Nigeria’s national oil company in 2014 – a level of corruption Buhari has dubbed “mind boggling”.

With even Buhari’s predecessor Goodluck Jonathan reportedly under investigation, it seems no one is safe, except – according to some opposition critics – members of Buhari’s own administration. Nigeria’s former ruling party have accused him of orchestrating a “witch hunt”. But political analyst Chris Ngwodo says this is not the case: “The government has set out to tackle the epic levels of public theft that occurred under the previous administration,” he tells PF. “Quite naturally, the narrow confines of privilege under that administration have shaped est the parameters of the current investigations and prosecutions.”

The government announced in June that its probe had recovered almost $600m in stolen cash, and identified almost $10bn in frozen assets and over $300m awaiting return from foreign governments. Altogether, that would inject some much needed cash into an economy seriously flagging as a result of the crash in oil prices – if it gets there. As Eze Onyekpere, a lawyer specialising in fiscal governance at Nigeria’s Centre for Social Justice points out to PF, returned funds have been looted in the past. Will Buhari’s probe prevent that from happening again?

Not according to John Heilbrunn, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines and an anti-corruption expert who has worked as a governance consultant in Nigeria for the World Bank. He deems this tactic of pursuing corrupt officials akin to “cutting off the hydra’s head”. Corruption runs deep in the country; where Buhari throws one person in jail, there will be another happy to take his place, he says. Heilbrunn points out that, as a result, Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign faces some deep-seated opposition from vested interests in both national and state level politics and throughout the public sector, especially where oil is concerned.

“Buhari is facing resistance from the old order,” agrees Ngwodo. “The campaign doesn’t enjoy much support in other precincts of governance, where it is perceived as an assault on the rent-seeking rites by which Nigerian elites benefit from power.”

The judiciary – at the forefront of Buhari’s drive to bring the corrupt to justice – is no exception. Deacon Titus Soetan, president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Nigeria, notes that cases brought so far have been riddled with “unnecessary delays” built on “technicalities”, and describes the judiciary as the “main challenge” in the fight against corruption. Buhari has also dubbed them his biggest “headache”.

Even the president’s own administration has been tainted with corruption allegations, despite the six months it took Buhari to select a cabinet reflecting his ethos. Ngwodo says he was largely successful in choosing a team of clean ministers, although not all have an entirely blemish-free recent history. Unable to choose anyone he trusts enough for the all-important job of petroleum minister, Buhari opted to appoint himself instead.

Onyekpere does not share Buhari’s confidence in his ability to head multiple important portfolios, and also has doubts about the competency of his appointments compared to previous administrations. “Before, there were more qualified persons who knew what public financial management reforms were all about. They were mischievous, promoted corruption, and knew what they should do but refused to do it. But I don’t see the capacity to move PFM reforms in the current ministers or technocrats running the system. They don’t seem to understand what the core issues are.”

However, Buhari has overseen a number of key changes during his tenure. The government’s single largest expense – the payroll – is now audited and managed via a centralised database; these changes uncovered almost 24,000 nonexistent workers still receiving paychecks in March, making savings worth $11.5m. State governments, renowned for resisting fiscal openness and dire financial management, have committed to fiscal sustainability plans, which include elements of transparency, greater prudence and compliance with standards like IPSASB. Still, only three states published their 2016 budgets. Oluseun Onigbinde, cofounder of BudgIT, an organisation that works to explain state and federal budgets to Nigerians, argues Buhari should go further. Much needed bailout cash for states from the central government could be tied to transparency, he suggests.

Buhari’s administration has also committed to implementing open procurement, and has rolled out pre-existing plans for a single treasury account so that all government financial transactions can be monitored.

Elena Mondo, a senior technical adviser at the Open Budget Initiative who has worked closely with Nigeria, says these changes are “positive and appropriate”, and will reduce the opportunities to misappropriate funds. She notes, however, that with few reforms fully implemented and most likely to hit some obstacles along the way, it’s a little too early to be sure of their impact. Open contracting, for example, has been rolled out only in two sectors and major impediments to transparency remain, such as the fact the auditor general does not publish reports on the budget and government agencies still do not report on how they spend the money they are allocated.

Onyekpere says Buhari should not get all the credit for these improvements. Many were set in motion by previous administrations, he points out, criticising the president’s lack of “fresh ideas”. Besides, he adds, Nigerians have not seen the benefits: there is no evidence of the government using the funds it has supposedly secured from its anti-corruption drive to improve Nigerians’ lives. The country recently signed its biggest ever budget, dubbed the “Budget of Change”, into law, tripling capital expenditure. But Onyekpere observes that progress has been slow and time frames are unclear.

Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital
Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital

Then there was a much bigger budget related embarrassment for Buhari, and one that shook confidence in his ability to reinvent Nigerian governance. Shortly after the budget was first presented to the national assembly in December 2015, hundreds of hard copies went missing. By February, it emerged that the budget was littered with discrepancies: unauthorised allocations dealing in billions of naira had somehow crept in to the document, in what became known as a “budget padding” scandal that took months of wrangling, the sacking of a budget chief, and yet another probe to sort out. For Onigbinde, some of the biggest issues – poor leadership from Buhari, a lack of professional capacity and no clear ministerial mandates – remain unresolved.

Soetan urges patience. It will take time to see the results of Buhari’s efforts, given “the level of corruption the country has sunk to in the past”, he argues. Unlike his predecessors, Buhari has done more than “pay lip service” to the eradication of corruption, Soetan continues, and brought real political will. “I am confident the process will be successful firstly because the man that is spearheading the fight appears sincere.”

For Onyekpere, this is not enough: “People talk about the ‘body language’ of the president, but this is not written down anywhere. There is nothing being done to make this live beyond this administration. So, yes, he is pushing anti-corruption, but the challenge we have is that, if for some reason the president is no longer here tomorrow, this message will go with him. We need fresh ideas and to institutionalise the process.”

“It’s going to require more than just a technocratic response,” adds Heilbrunn. “It’s going to take a whole package of reforms that goes far beyond PFM and the role of accountability agencies within the state. It will have to go all the way in to reforming the legislature, basically even doing reforms at a constitutional level. In some respects, it’s going to require a generation change.”

By Emma Rumney, this article was first published in Public Finance International

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