Although Nigeria is known mainly for oil and gas production, Nigeria’s agriculture sector, including forestry and fisheries, now accounts for over 21% of the country’s GDP. Despite the benefits of the forestry and fisheries industries to Nigeria’s development, corruption-fueled illicit activities in these sectors threaten to destabilize local communities and damage the environment. Two areas of illicit activity are of particular concern:
- Illegal Logging: Nigeria has become the largest exporter of rosewood logs in the world and one of the largest overall wood exporters in Africa. Yet almost all of the exported rosewoods coming from and through Nigeria were illegally harvested. The rosewood exported from Nigeria, known as Kosso, is covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which requires that all exports of Kosso be accompanied by an official document issued by the national CITES authorities. This document verifies that the wood was lawfully harvested; shipments without this document must be seized by the importing nation’s customs officials. But as a 2017-2018 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed, illegal loggers have resorted to large-scale corruption to evade this and other restrictions. For example, EIA investigators discovered that influential Nigerian and Chinese businessmen paid over US$1 million in bribes to Nigerian senior officials, including ministers and congressmen, for the improper issuance of CITES documents. In addition, illegal loggers paid local officials bribes to allow logging in protected areas, and to turn a blind eye to this illegal conduct. Nigerian police officers, who also sought to profit from these illegal activities, began manning checkpoints for the purpose of exacting bribes from logging truck drivers transporting rosewood. The large-scale corruption scheme in the Nigerian timber sector has led to the rapid degradation of fragile forests, which in turn has amplified the risk of flooding and erosion and contributed to global climate change.
- Illegal Fishing: Nigerian law requires that all commercial fishing vessels operating within Nigerian waters be licensed, and trawlers are required to submit catch statistics for inspection. However, according to a fisheries crime study conducted by INTERPOL, vessels fishing in Nigeria’s territorial waters evade these requirements by bribing maritime patrol officers. There are also allegations that companies are improperly obtaining licenses by bribing the issuing officials. The lack of transparency regarding which companies and vessels have been issued valid licenses makes the identification of possible violations difficult. Corruption-fueled illegal fishing has also resulted in the dwindling of fish stocks in Nigeria, thereby threatening traditional livelihoods in its coastal communities.
Although the Nigerian government has shown a desire to crack down on corruption generally (see here and here), more must be done with respect to corrupt practices in the forestry and fishery industries. Here are two steps the Nigerian government ought to take, as part of a more comprehensive plan to fight corruption in these sectors:
- First, the government could increase transparency in the licensing process by requiring that the appropriate departments within forestry and fishery regions publish a list of licensed companies, together with information about those companies. Such a list could discourage officials from granting licenses in return for bribes, because civil society watchdogs and the Nigerian federal government could investigate licensed companies to determine whether they meet the requirements needed to obtain their licenses. If a company is found not to meet the requirements, an investigation could subsequently be launched into the issuing official, potentially exposing that official to punishment if improprieties are revealed.
- Second, to address the problem of local officials taking bribes to ignore illegal activities or otherwise forgo their duties, the federal government should make expanded use of undercover sting operations. Sting operations—which the Nigerian government has used in other contexts (see here, here, and here)—could and should be used to test the integrity of local officials. For example, the federal government could send undercover agents posing as businessmen looking to engage in illicit logging or fishery activities, and these agents could offer bribes to officials in exchange for non-interference or the procurement of falsified documents or licenses. Similarly, the government could send undercover agents posing as truck drivers for an illegal logging company, or as commercial fishing vessel operators without appropriate licenses, and offer bribes to enforcement officers in exchange for ignoring the illegal activities. Such sting operations would not only provide evidence for the prosecution of the officials involved, but the federal government could widely publicize these cases and emphasize that the government conducts such stings on a regular basis. Doing so would likely deter many officials from engaging in such corrupt practices, even if the statistical probability of getting caught in a sting remained quite low.
As in other contexts, a combination of greater transparency and more rigorous enforcement can help suppress corruption in these sectors. Doing so ought to be a high priority of the Nigerian government, as corruption in the forestry and fishery sectors threatens not only the integrity of Nigerian institutions, but also the country’s long-term sustainable development.