The Political Will to Fight Corruption: Lessons from Nigeria

“Political will” is often said to be the sine qua non of a successful anticorruption policy (click here, here, and here for some examples), yet the term remains, as Linn Hammergren complained almost two decades ago, one of “the slipperiest concepts in the policy lexicon.”  Derick Brinkerhoff tried to pin down what those advising on anticorruption meant by it in a 2010 U4 policy brief.  He concluded that most used the term to refer to some combination of commitment by controlling corruption by top-level political leaders together with the ability to do something about it.

While a reasonable definition, a moment’s reflection will show that advising developing countries that to fight corruption they must have political will is empty advice.  If a country’s leadership had the commitment to deal with corruption and the tools for doing so, it wouldn’t need advice on what to do, it would be in the heat of the battle.  The reason most countries remain on the sidelines is that their leaders lack the necessary commitment and capacity.  So telling developing countries that a successful anticorruption effort begins with political will assumes away the problem.

What would help is advice on how to create the commitment and ability to fight corruption. 

In the absence of a general theory, something that, if even possible, remains many years in the future, the next best thing is case studies of how governments have created political will.  Below is a brief sketch of how it developed in Nigeria during the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo.

Obasanjo took office just after Nigeria had suffered a particularly virulent bout of “grand corruption.” Thanks to the steady increase in the price of oil, the country’s economic mainstay, in the 1980s and 1990s, when General Sani Abacha seized power in 1993 the state’s wealth had swelled dramatically, and Abacha could not resist the temptation this offered to filch an ever larger share for himself, his family, and his cronies.  By the time he died in 1998, allegedly during a drunken orgy with prostitutes, he was said to have personally stolen somewhere between $2 and $5 billion from the Nigerian treasury.  Even by Nigerian standards, the size of the theft, and its brazenness, was astounding, and as a result those running in the election to replace him all pledged to crack down on.

Olusegun Obasanjo won that election, and although a former general, and thus at least nominally part of Nigeria’s elite, Obasanjo nevertheless had plausible anticorruption credentials.  He had loudly denounced the greed of his predecessor and had helped found the Nigerian chapter of Transparency International.  But while expectations among the populace for action on corruption might have been high, observers wondered whether the compromises he had had to make with regional power-brokers and the military to win election had compromised his ability to fight corruption.  As one writer put it, his anticorruption rhetoric was more likely an aspiration for the future rather than a practical political agenda.

A little more than year after taking office the Financial Action Task Force forced Obasanjo’s hand.  In late 2001 FATF concluded the country was not doing enough to combat money laundering and terrorist financing and designated it a “non-cooperating” jurisdictions.  Nigeria could not afford to stay on this list.  Obasanjo’s administration was in the midst of negotiating an ambitious debt forgiveness plan to help dig the economy out of the hole Abacha and his predecessors has dug with their reckless foreign borrowing, and the country’s creditors were unlikely to forgive any debt so long as the government was on the FATF list.  Some foreign banks stopped lending to the government and Nigeria’s private sector after it was blacklisted, and those that continued started demanding borrowers to go through cumbersome and costly processes to prove they were not laundering money or facilitating the financing of terrorists. (The source for this paragraph and succeeding ones are Nuhu Ribadu’s Show Me the Money.)

Obasanjo thus ordered the government to do what was necessary to get off the list.  At this point, a group of reform minded ministers and advisers (including the current Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and now civil society activist Obiageli Ezekwesili) took over.  Arguing that to get off the blacklist Nigeria had to show FATF the government was serious about fighting money laundering and terrorists financing, they persuaded the National Assembly to approve a series of bills making it easier to secure convictions of those laundering the proceeds of crime, which explicitly included the proceeds from corruption crimes, and making it harder for suspects to post bail.  Plea bargaining was introduced; special courts to try cases of money laundering created, and a new agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, was established to pursue money launderers.

Nuhu Ribadu was named to head the newly created agency.  The well-educated son of a senior civil servant, he had been running a police unit that investigated corruption and financial crime and was thus a credible choice.  He was also junior enough that he did not appear to be much of a threat to the corrupt networks that dominated Nigerian politics.  In any event, the remit of the EFCC was money laundering and it was expected that the commission would devote its energies to pursuing the bankers and others responsible for laundering monies realized from robbery, fraud, and other run-of-the-mill crimes.

Ribadu and the EFCC staff soon upended these expectations.  Buried in the law creating the EFCC was the authority to pursue not only those who laundered money earned from criminal activities but those who generated the proceeds, and during his four years at the helm of EFCC Ribadu used these powers to the maximum to pursue corrupt politicians – governors of Nigerian states, members of the federal legislature, and even a former colleague, the Inspector General of the Nigerian Federal Police.  At his zenith, he was able to deny Obasanjo a third term as president. Obasanjo, or at least his supporters, planned to persuade, bribing when necessary, a sufficient number of legislators to change the presidential succession rules.   When rumors of the planned bribery surfaced, Ribadu’s threat to investigate was enough to end the scheme.

Ribadu built the power of the EFCC to investigate and prosecute cases of grand corruption, and thus Nigeria’s “political will” to fight corruption, with great thought.  He developed ties to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office which helped train his staff.  As trust was built, they in turn provided critical information about corrupt Nigerian politicians.  He also won the support of the Nigerian public by starting his efforts with a crack down on “advance fee” fraudsters.  These are the criminals who e-mail Nigerians and foreigners alike with promises of a large return if the recipient will advance the sender money to have a will probated, pay a bond to release property in customs, and the like.  Once the victim advances the money, the fraudster disappears.

Many in Nigerian had fallen prey to these crooks, and with their increasing use of the internet they had conned numerous non-Nigerians as well.  The fraudsters were not only robbing middle class Nigerians but they were blackening Nigeria’s reputation and that of its citizens in the international community.  By the time Ribadu became head of the EFCC Nigerians had grown weary of being preyed upon and ashamed of the country’s reputation.  His campaign against the advance fee criminals thus won him broad support, support that sustained him and the EFCC when the corrupt politicians he began arresting tried to mobilize against him.

Ribadu did not achieve a lasting victory; Advisers to Obasanjo’s successor included some of the very individuals Ribadu was targeting, and they succeeded forcing him out of the EFCC.  But the final chapter in Nigeria’s battle to combat corruption has not been written.  Ribadu recently headed a panel that released a report showing a large difference between what the national oil company said it received in payment for the country’s oil and what the buyers say they paid.  And after a period when the EFCC’s power to combat high level corruption was hobbled, it is again on the front lines under the leadership of a Ribadu protege.

Nigeria’s recipe for creating political will is instructive on many counts.  The pressure from FATF; the shrewdness with which Ribadu went about building support for his agency both within and without Nigeria;  the backdrop of a strong civil society and at least a nascent democracy; and finally what some would say was overplaying his hand after Obasanjo left office.  Circumstances in other nations will inevitably differ from those in Nigeria in the first decade of the 21st Century, but its experience nonetheless offers much from which other countries can profit.

3 thoughts on “The Political Will to Fight Corruption: Lessons from Nigeria

  1. Dear Rick,
    Interesting material to read. If we do not have a good example on “political will”, how about having a bad example? Lessons can be learned from the failure stories as much from the success stories.

  2. Although I’m sure it is a national-level problem as well, money-laundering is a transnational crime and it therefore seems that external pressure from entities like the FATF would be probable and effective. However, I wonder whether international actors would have the motivation or the ability to have a similar impact on the “political will” to fight purely domestic corruption or misconduct lying somewhere in between petty bribery and grand corruption. I think it’s particularly interesting and important that Ribadu was able to use the EFCC mandate to get at domestic public officials. I’d love to learn about additional examples of collateral effects/creative approaches taken by reform-minded individuals in enabling environments cultivated, in part, by international action. But a key question, as you indicate, is how the political will of lower officials can, over the long term, trump the lack thereof at higher levels of government.

  3. Pingback: Corruption Currents: China to Prosecute Former Unicom Executive | Fast News

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