In a post originally published on African Arguments, CFR International Affairs Fellow Matthew Page explains that despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s anticorruption progress, the government’s new budget includes allocations for opaque funds that often go missing.
Under President Muhammadu Buhari, the fight against corruption in Nigeria has unquestionably turned a corner. Shortly after taking office in May, he vowed to “plug revenue leakages,” made sweeping changes in the notoriously corrupt Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), and took steps to tighten control over public spending. He gave the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) free rein to pursue former officials, several of whom have been arrested.
However, despite these advances, Buhari’s 2016 budget raises awkward questions. According to official details just released by the Nigerian government’s Budget Office, the 2016 budget contains over thirty so-called “security votes.”
In theory, security votes are catch-all line items inserted in the budget to give recipients the flexibility to cover ad hoc security expenditures. But in practice, they are opaque slush funds that officials have long used to embezzle state funds or redirect them for political purposes. Security votes are distinct from the type of extra-budgetary defense spending that may have been misdirected or stolen by the previous government, but they resemble them insofar as they are spent with scant legislative oversight or outside scrutiny.
In light of his record and rhetoric, Buhari’s decision to use security votes raises doubts about whether his anticorruption strategy is comprehensive enough to put Nigeria back on track.
A relic of military rule, security votes were used to siphon public funds during Nigeria’s Second Republic from 1979 to 1983. In fact, when the military overthrew the government and Buhari became a military head of state in 1983, he arrested former officials and investigated fellow military officers for embezzling security funds.
Max Siollun suggests that these actions contributed to Ibrahim Babangida’s decision to topple Buhari in 1985. And under Babangida and later Sani Abacha, the use of security votes as a tool for self-enrichment was perfected and institutionalized.
Following Nigeria’s 1999 return to civilian rule, soldiers-turned-civilian officials such as President Olusegun Obasanjo and former National Security Adviser Aliyu Mohammed Gusau ensured that security votes survived.
Although it makes sense that a few select military and intelligence expenditures should remain classified even in a democracy, the widespread use of security votes by federal, state, and even local officials is anathema to norms of transparency and accountability. Yet top politicians have long turned a blind eye to the practice or even attempted to excuse it.
As one now-opposition party heavyweight recently griped: “Why are we probing security votes now? You see, security votes to my understanding can be used for native doctors, it can be used to hire Alphas [soothsayers] and it can be used for churches to pray for the country. It can be used for even sponsoring things.”