The Battle for Nigeria

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Notes from different corners of the world.
April 11 2007 1:03 PM

The Battle for Nigeria

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Nigerians want Americans to know they're serious about tackling corruption. You can tell because they speak in quotes they know no reporter could resist scribbling down. Suleiman Hameen of Lagos' Port Industry Anti-Corruption Committee told our group of visiting U.S. journalists, "The two greatest evils in the world are terrorism and corruption. Of the two, corruption is the worst. Terrorists kill a specific number of people. Corrupt people kill the whole nation, and sometimes whole generations."

June Thomas June Thomas
June Thomas, Slate's foreign editor, visited Nigeria as part of a Gatekeeper Editors Fellowship organized by the International Reporting Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Of course, it's not like they can avoid the topic. Nigeria and corruption go together in the Western imagination like breaking and entering or doom and gloom. As Nuhu Ribadu, the boyish face of Nigeria's anti-corruption crusade, put it, "A few people more or less destroyed our image in the world."

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Looking back over his eight years in office, departing President Olusegun Obasanjo takes pride—too much pride—in Nigeria's movement up Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. In 2000, Nigeria was dead last, but only 90 nations were listed on the index. In 2006, there were 13 countries ranked below Nigeria—but now the list runs to 163 countries. No one prints up T-shirts to celebrate a nine-way tie for 142nd place. Still, even Obasanjo's enemies credit him with making an effort to expose and prosecute crooked pols.

The most visible effort is the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, described by a Western diplomat as "the most effective law enforcement agency in West Africa." Former prosecutor and police commissioner Ribadu, 46, serves as its executive chairman. When we visited the EFCC's financial-intelligence unit in Abuja, about 25 cubicle-bound analysts stared at computer screens, examining bank records for "suspicious transactions" that gave off a whiff of fraud or money-laundering. It was Office Space meets The Wire. Going after "Yahoo Boys"—e-mail scammers—built up the agency's profile overseas, especially when it returned hundreds of millions of dollars to victims in Europe, Brazil, and the United States. In the last six months, though, it is the EFCC's pursuit of "lootocrats" that has drawn the country's attention, much of it negative.

Since Nigeria's oil boom in the 1960s, there has been a psychological disconnect between citizens and politicians: Voters don't hold corrupt politicians accountable because they don't feel they have a stake in the system. In most countries, paying taxes is what motivates citizens to keep a close watch on politicians, but because oil revenues flow into their coffers year after year, few Nigerian states make more than a token effort to collect taxes. Most Nigerians have become resigned to the notion that elected officials will siphon public funds into their private accounts. One oil exec told us that the EFCC's efforts to bring corrupt governors to justice—five were impeached between 2003 and 2006—have helped citizens to recognize their potential role in good governance.

In early February, the EFCC released a list of 135 politicians it deemed too corrupt to take part in the April elections, including Vice President Atiku Abubakar—one of the leading presidential candidates and a sworn enemy of President Obasanjo—as well as almost 30 candidates for governor. (The EFCC claims Atiku misappropriated millions of dollars from the Petroleum Technology Development Fund, and after following up a referral from the FBI, also says that some of those funds were transferred to the United States for a business transaction with Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., now the target of a corruption probe relating to those curious dealings.) At that point, complaints that the EFCC's choice of targets was politically motivated became deafening. Human-rights attorney Festus Okoye told us, "Most Nigerians believe EFCC is wrapped around the president's finger." Atiku put it more straightforwardly: "[Ribadu] is absolutely being used."

Okoye, who applauds the establishment of the EFCC, nevertheless has concerns about its practices. The EFCC moves to arrest targets before gathering all the evidence—and has held suspects in custody for up to six months before bringing them to trial, sometimes without informing them of specific charges. "That's not fighting crime," he says, "that's a serial violation of human rights." Okoye believes that only the courts—and no other body, including the EFCC or the Independent National Electoral Commission—are empowered to disqualify candidates from office. This question is at the heart of Atiku's ongoing legal struggle to contest the April 21 presidential election.

Of course, as political scientist Jibrin Ibrahim acknowledged, "In law, once you've committed a crime, it's not an excuse to say, 'Others too have committed it. Why are you picking on me?' " Ibrahim wonders if Ribadu is simply acting rationally by targeting the president's enemies: "Maybe it makes sense to tackle the cases where the political fallout won't be massive, so that [he] can continue to work and finally generate sufficient steam to go all the way. If so, Obasanjo should watch out. Eventually, it will be politically expedient to get to him."

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