from Africa in Transition

Guest Post: Fight Against Corruption in Nigeria Slowly Moving Forward

March 19, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

Nigeria’s struggle against corruption is moving slowly, at least in terms of results. Transparency International’s "Corruption Perception Index 2011", which evaluates 183 countries, put Nigeria at 143. The country ranked 134 out of 178 countries in 2010.

Still, anti-corruption efforts proceed. Audits undertaken by the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) have revealed "startling gaps" in the conduct of business by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), during the 2006-2008 period. According to the NEITI audits seen by Reuters, $540 million is missing from $1.675 billion in signature bonuses, 3.1 million barrels of oil are missing from NNPC declarations about its joint ventures, and $3.789 billion in dividends from Nigeria LNG do not appear to have been paid into federal accounts. The inauguration of a Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force with former Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) chairman Nuhu Ribadu as its head promises more transparency and accountability in the oil sector.

Similarly, prosecutions of alleged corrupt officials took a step forward with former governor James Ibori’s recent conviction in London on charges of money-laundering, the subject of a tough Guardian editorial noting that the verdict on Ibori also "convicts" Nigeria’s political system, the party structure, and the screening process for public officials. However, former governor of Ogun State, Gbenga Daniel, who had been charged with financial misappropriation and abuse of office, was freed when the court ruled that the EFCC had not followed due process in the amendment of the initial charges against the former governor.

Despite ongoing progress, corruption appears to remain firmly entrenched in the country. Five years ago, Daniel Smith wrote in the Financial Times that an aspect of Nigeria’s political culture had changed in that, "accusations of corruption...have become the currency of political competition in an unprecedented fashion." As a result, expectations had been created that politicians, and officials, should be held accountable. Smith judged that "because anti-corruption rhetoric has become the currency of political legitimacy, the next cohort of leaders may feel compelled to prove their credentials by probing and prosecuting their patrons."

To some extent, Smith was right. Probes and prosecutions are going forward. Yet corruption persists. Its durability, whether in Nigeria or elsewhere, is an attribute early twentieth-century American muckrakers knew well. Lincoln Steffens, whose articles on corruption in American cities in McClure’s Magazine helped establish the field of muckraking journalism, discovered some of the reasons for corruption’s staying power. They may still apply.

Peter Hartshorn writes in his biography of Steffens, I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens, that political corruption, in Steffens’ view, "was not a matter of individual character but of pressure, and most people would succumb if money, even modest amounts, appeared in their pockets." Steffens concluded that "reform begins at home--with all of us." Reformers themselves were also a problem. "I saw enough of it to realize that reform politics was still politics, only worse; reformers were not so smooth as professional politicians, and it seemed to me they were not so honest," Steffens said. As well, he eventually came to regard as absurd, his own assumption that just "showing people facts and conditions would persuade them to alter them or their own conduct." Part of Steffens’ lifelong process of "unlearning," according to Hartshorn, included his realization that "pure honesty, particularly the righteous kind that he would find in many shrill reformers, was useless in pushing society forward." As a muckraker, Steffens learned that the social problem of corruption "will not be solved by good men and intellectuals, but by intellectuals, practical men, and many, many rascals..."

Smith is no doubt right that the culture shift in Nigeria aids anti-corruption efforts, but Steffens’ insights may suggest why that progress is in slowmo.

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