Recent high-profile arrests of prominent Nigerians on corruption charges have buoyed public opinion that the government’s promise to stamp out graft is sincere. Corruption itself is unlikely to disappear soon but the government’s best hope is to win the battle of perceptions, convincing Nigerians and external stakeholders that it has the upper hand in a grinding war that has a long way to go.

Former police chief Tafa Balogun, who was arrested in March, is facing charges that he accepted bribes while in office. President Olusegun Obasanjo has also dismissed senate president Adolphus Wabara and former education minister Fabian Osuji on charges of corruption.

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Just as significant, prosecutors secured a conviction in July against one of the co-conspirators who defrauded a Brazilian bank out of $272m in an elaborate 419 scam, the so-called advance fee con that asks unwitting respondents for an upfront fee in exchange for a share in a much larger windfall in the future.

From small victories

These small victories, among others, chip away at a firmly entrenched perception of deep-seated corruption in Nigeria. The country is ranked third-last in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. But the government, and the president in particular, is quick to admit that there is a long way to go.

Nigeria’s battle against corruption dates back to 1999, when the president declared: “Corruption, the greatest single bane of our society today, will be tackled head-on at all levels. Corruption is incipient in all human societies and in most human activities. But it must not be condoned. No society can achieve anything near its full potential if it allows corruption to become the full-blown cancer it has become in Nigeria.”

Fighting talk

Indicative of its impact on the Nigerian economy, the topic of corruption was high on the agenda during negotiations with the country’s Paris Club creditors. “The corruption profile of Nigeria was one factor that complicated our arguments and prolonged the negotiations,” Mr Obasanjo said in August, at a seminar on corruption in Nigeria. “It is comforting to note, however, that seriousness and steadfastness in the fight against corruption was also significant in counting in our favour in getting debt relief.

“Until now, the political will to fight corruption was either tentative or non-existent. At one time, corruption among the elite was simply swept under the carpet, and at other times, a few scapegoats were identified, punished and the nation went back to business as usual. I am glad to note that today we can talk about this phenomenon so openly. The ability to do this is the first major step in the fight against corruption and the enthronement of transparency and accountability.”

The president continued: “More than at any other time in the history of Nigeria, we have made more policy effort [to combat corruption], established more credible institutions, sanctioned more highly placed persons, and taken the campaign against corruption to unprecedented levels.” He said that the range of anti-corruption, transparency and good governance programmes included budgetary and fiscal transparency; procurement reforms; strengthening anti-corruption and economic crimes institutions for effective law enforcement; the sanction of corruption and money laundering offenders; public sector reforms; reform of the administration of justice; tracing, freezing and recovering corruption proceeds; and general reorientation of the public.

Safeguards

Securing convictions has been crucial to winning public confidence but the sustainability of moves against corruption is more likely to be vested in the strength of the various safeguard institutions.

For instance, Nigeria has signed up to the Executive Industries Transparency Initiative to ensure a transparent accounting system for the oil, gas and other extractive industries in the country. A firm was recently appointed to commence the process of auditing all income from that sector.

The publication of monthly fiscal allocations to the three tiers of government is going some way towards improving the transparency of national finances. The idea is that citizens should know the quantity and timing of funding to the different levels of government, becoming the government’s eyes and ears to track whether actual expenditure in terms of services and projects roughly matches allocated funds.

The National Financial Intelligence Unit has been established to combat money laundering by monitoring and analysing suspicious transactions through the financial system. The work of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which is the government’s main anti-corruption agency, has been backed up by a reorganised police force, improved investigative capabilities, new technology, the independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Tribunal, and an increasingly aware and involved public.

Zero tolerance

Although Nigerian authorities are adamant that ground has been won in the fight against graft, and even suggest that the country’s reputation is worse than the reality, there is a healthy recognition of where they have to take the fight. In particular, it is at the state and local government level that the anti-corruption push is being resisted or failing to reach.

Mr Obasanjo wants to step up the fight, with better co-ordination across several fronts. He points out inadequate efforts will be overwhelmed by the incentive that corruption offers, reversing early progress. He believes that the only way forward is zero tolerance. “There can be no ‘tolerable’ level of corruption,” he says.

To begin with, the government is speeding up the reform of the so-called ‘toll gate institutions’, such as the customs service, ports authority, airports authority, maritime authority and immigration service – described by the president as bastions of corruption. The government recently hired Crown Agents to overhaul customs, a move aimed as much at improving the flow of goods in and out of the country as curbing rampant corruption within its ranks.

To this end, the president has signalled an urgent need to reform the administration of justice to ensure quick and timely adjudication of corruption cases, even fast-tracking such cases. In the past, wealthy defendants avoided prosecution by exploiting weaknesses in the criminal justice system, a factor that has limited the number of convictions and undermined public confidence in the process. Mr Obasanjo has also hinted that anti-corruption laws could be amended to encourage whistle-blowing, offering implicated parties leniency in exchange for testimony leading to a conviction.

The government is also exploring formal mechanisms to ensure closer collaboration between government, civil society and the media to expose corrupt officials. “The role of the media in this task cannot be underestimated,” says Mr Obasanjo. “Thus far, the media has in large measure failed but it is capable of change for the better.”

Civil service

Other measures are longer-term in nature, more costly and generally more difficult to achieve. Allied to ‘right-sizing’ the civil sector, the government has promised to recruit more professional and competent civil servants. Even in the rarefied echelons of the legislature, judiciary and executive, there will be a greater demand for proven competency. “All deadwoods and those that cannot be retrained and re-equipped for quality service delivery in the 21st-century style of governance will have to go,” says the president. “This is the only way to build dependability, reliability, quality, credibility, efficiency and predictability into the system.”

There will also be a more vigorous enforcement of the mandatory public declaration of assets by all public offices. “Assets not so declared should be liable to confiscation by government under the principle of ‘unjust enrichment’,” says Mr Obasanjo.

Equally, though, the president would like to see reciprocal efforts to target the bribe givers in their own countries.

“Those who are still in doubt of government’s resolve to fight corruption should therefore have a rethink,” he says. “We are not joking about our war on corruption and let me repeat, no-one is sacred.”

That is tough talk – and it is increasingly being backed up by tough action.