Nigeria’s spring cleaning of corruption

May 12, 2005 02:00 AM

It looks like anti-corruption spring cleaning in Nigeria: two ministers fired, the senate president replaced and a sacked police chief handcuffed to court. But will the many fat ladies in and out of the dominant oil sector and across government sing in the world’s most corrupt nation?
The ides of spring began on March 22 with an unscheduled presidential broadcast. Therein President Olusegun Obasanjo accused some legislature leaders, including senate president Adolphous Wabara, of collecting N 55 mm (about $ 400 000) in bribes from education minister Fabian Osuji to enlarge his ministry’s budget. On air, Obasanjo sacked Osuji and ordered his prosecution and asked Wabara to resign.

Four days after the broadcast, an anonymous petition led the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to what has been dubbed "Ikoyigate": the below-market price sale of 107 choice government properties in the genteel Ikoyi quarters of Lagos Island by one of the president’s confidantes, works and housing minister Mobolaji Osomo, through her personal company to Obasanjo’s coterie, including seven of his official wife’s relatives and Vice President Atiku Abubakar.
Others include Central Bank governor Charles Soludo, World Bank-sourced finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Due Process office head Oby Ezekwesili and Oyo state governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola, who frequently handles the president’s special assignments.

Remarkably, all but Oyinlola, who described the sale as a "normal business transaction", denied applying for the houses, even as Osomo insisted she had succumbed to their pressure. Obasanjo voided all but two of the transactions, one of which involved former commonwealth secretary Emeka Anyaoku. Osomo, unlike her education counterpart, was quietly sacked.
The legislature is riled by what it deems the executive’s selective treatment of corruption. Legislators complain that in a long series of scandals, the only one which received presidential broadcast allegedly involved a few of their members. Listing several alleged executive corruption cases for which they have long abortively sought prosecution, they accuse Obasanjo of publicly pronouncing the accused legislators guilty even before interrogation. Obasanjo’s broadcast, they say, was calculated to institutionally discredit the legislature even though only six members stand accused.

The legislature-executive contest for the moral high ground shifted to the courts in early April with the arraignment of ex-police chief Tafa Balogun, who had been quietly sacked in January after the EFCC traced to him local and foreign bank accounts and real estate worth some N 15 bn (about $ 107 mm). Next were Osuji and Wabara. Nigerians have seen their country earn some $ 100 bn from oil and about N 1 tn from eleven major fuel price increases since 1999 amidst collapsing infrastructure, including the electricity system.
Many recall that Obasanjo swore in Wabara as senate president even as the Independent Electoral Commission was contesting his senatorial election in court. To such critics, the president is simply scapegoating, to simultaneously impress the international community and eliminate threats to his alleged "2007 sit-tight agenda" -- plans to prolong his presidency beyond the constitutional two terms terminating in May 2007.

Obasanjo has repeatedly denied any sit-tight intentions. The background to the president’s actions is substantially suspect. The bribe-for-budget broadcast, for instance, was on the eve of the African Union’s peer review team’s departure from Nigeria. The next day, the team duly commended Obasanjo for his anticorruption crusade.
Time will surely tell. Obasanjo, however, can boost public confidence by first appointing an oil minister and opening that sector to constitutional oversight by other arms of government. There must be a public enquiry into the spates of illegal bunkering which the naval high command, that supervises the country’s territorial waters, has publicly traced to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation directly supervised by the president. Prosecuting his boys and girls caught in Ikoyigate will also not hurt.

Source: Business in Africa
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