Fighting Corruption in Nigeria

Nigeria continues to enjoy pride of place in the global discourse on corruption.  A Google search for “Nigeria corruption” brings up more than 53 million entries led by a lengthy Wikipedia article on the subject. Matthew’s bibliography lists over 100 books, monographs, and scholarly articles on corruption in the country which analyze everything from its colonial roots to how and why it is endemic to what can be done to tame it.  This blog has ruminated on matters ranging from why the head of the Economic and Financial Crime Commission was replaced to whether the then newly-elected President Muhammadu Buhari was serious about fighting corruption to outgoing First Lady Patience Jonathan’s impatience with the thought something was untoward in her receiving “small gifts” totaling $15 million while her husband held high office.

Two current papers by authors with very different backgrounds, one a former U.S. intelligence analyst, the other a former Nigerian professor and incoming head of the Nigeria’s corrupt practices commission, continue the discussion.   Both agree corruption is pervasive and that it has done much harm to the state and its citizens.  Not surprisingly perhaps, given who they are and where they sit, they offer quite different assessments of where the country stands in the fight against corruption.  In Real Challenges of Fighting Corruption in Nigeria, remarks delivered to the Corruption Hunters Network (CHN) June 25, Professor Bolaji Owasanoye, nominated to chair the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, radiated optimism, ticking off a series of reforms that have made a difference and predicting more progress is on the horizon.  By contrast, the tone of a July monograph for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Matthew Page, the former Nigerian analyst for the U.S. intelligence community, is decidedly pessimistic.  When it comes to what can be done, he offers nothing beyond a scheme to help policymakers make sense of the dizzying variety of forms corruption in the country takes.

My money is on Owasanoye and not just because I had the opportunity to hear him deliver his talk. My reasons for optimism about Nigeria’s fight against corruption are several.

Let’s start with Professor Owasanoye himself.  As his paper shows, he is an informed and knowledgeable student of corruption, in Nigeria and elsewhere, with a clear sense of what the priorities in the fight are.  There is no substitute for homegrown expertise in any policy arena, be it health, education, or corruption.  Tackling corruption requires individuals steeped not only in the learning on how to combat corruption in its many forms but who deeply understand the context in which that learning is to be applied. Professor Owasanoye clearly qualifies on both scores.  Nor is he unique.  Skim through the 100 plus entries on Nigeria in Matthew’s bibliography and note that a clear majority by far are authored by Nigerians. If I, and I trust the readers of this blog, hold any belief dear, it is that to prevail corruption fighters must come to the fight armed with the most up-to-date learning and tools on offer.

A second reason I am optimistic about Nigeria’s fight against corruption is the very real progress that it has made over the past two decades.  With the 2003 creation of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the appointment of Nuhu Ribadu as its first executive chair, the country began a serious effort to investigate and prosecute high-level corruption.  The path has not been ever upward. Ribadu had to flee Nigeria to avoid assassination and his replacement did much to tear down the agency he built; but the EFCC rebounded. Critics say its prosecutions have been politically biased, aimed at government opponents.  While Page unfortunately regurgitates this claim in his paper, the evidence offers little to support it.  What it shows is that most of the criticism of the EFCC emanates from those who fear they will soon be a target of its persistent and brave investigators (upwards of 100 have been murdered for doing their job).  With Professor Owasanoye taking the helm of the ICPC, I would expect its case load will ramp up shortly.

An unappreciated bright spot in Nigeria’s fight against corruption is the steady improvement in public contracting by the federal government. Nigeria’s reform of the federal public procurement system began with a 2000 World Bank-Nigerian government analysis revealing a system rife with abuse.  The few Finance Ministry directives on procurement were not public, procuring entities were not required to put tenders out for competitive bids, suppliers had no recourse if their bid was rejected, and political interference in procurement decisions was commonplace.

The government responded with the passage of the Public Procurement Act, 2007, modeled on the UNCITRAL 1994 model procurement law.  Like the model law, the PPA requires competitive procurement in all but limited, carefully specified situations; establishes a central unit, the Public Procurement Bureau, to review procurements and supervise the activities of procuring entities; increases transparency in procurements; and creates a system of administrative review for aggrieved suppliers. Going beyond the model law, it requires procuring entities to “invite two credible persons as observers in every procurement process,” one from a private sector professional association and one from a civil society organization and gives the Bureau of Public Procurement the authority to review any decision by a procuring entity to select a supplier through a process that does require open, competitive bidding.   Unlike many national procurement laws, it covers government corporations, meaning most significantly the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation.  Allegations of corruption in procurement have dogged the NNPC for years and requiring the NNPC and many of its joint ventures to observe the PPA is one of the many strengths of the PPA.

To be sure, enforcement of the PPA leaves much to be desired.  But criticism of the level of enforcement needs to be tempered by recalling that the Bureau of Public Procurement was only established in 2007 and a formal training center for its staff and EFCC and ICPC staff only begun in 2012.  In less than two decades, then, while presidents with different interests and different commitments to fighting corruption have come and gone, a first-rate procurement law has been enacted, a widely admired agency established to oversee its implementation, and a program to train a professional procurement cadre initiated.

A final reason why I am optimistic about Nigeria’s fight against corruption is the strength of its civil society.  Groups at the federal and state-level have emerged over the past two decades to force elected officials and bureaucrats to act.  This blog recounted the pioneering efforts of the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project or SERAP, which brought a precedent setting suit against the Government of Nigeria in the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States  for its failure to tackle corruption in education.  SERAP is only one of dozens of anticorruption NGOs at work in Nigeria.

Yes, corruption remains a horrendous problem in Nigeria.  But the rise of dedicated government professionals, career and political appointees alike, committed to curbing it, along with a growing body of scholarly work analyzing it, and citizen activists who will no longer tolerate it or the politicians that profit from it bodes well for the fight to contain it.

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