Nigeria : Endemic Corruption Draining Human, Economic Resources

By Danielle Kurtzleben

Government corruption has long been a fact of life in Nigeria - elections are often fraught with fraud, intimidation, and violence; oil companies have been known to pay the military for assistance in suppressing protests; embezzling politicians steal money away from infrastructure services and programmes.

Despite the country's relative wealth, it lags behind comparable nations in basic infrastructure like electricity, health clinics and roads.

Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based advocacy organisation, sent a letter to Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, lambasting his administration for failing to implement anti-corruption measures.

And on Wednesday, Nasir El-Rufai, who served as minister of the Nigerian Federal Capital Territory (FCT) of Abuja from 2003 to 2007, spoke at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies about the need and prospects for Nigerian political reform.

Addressing Yar'Adua, HRW said that the purpose of their letter was "to express our concerns about the slow rate of progress, and indeed significant setbacks, in addressing crucial human rights problems in Nigeria under your administration."

The letter comes at the midpoint of Yar'Adua's first presidential term. It calls for Yar'Adua to pursue a 10-point human rights agenda towards the end of "improv[ing] transparency and accountability in Nigeria."

The 10 points include recommendations on a wide variety of areas, from freedom of information to punishing government officials for embezzlement.

El-Rufai believes that the answers to Nigeria's troubles can be categorised under the broader umbrella of political reform, as opposed to economic reform.

Under the Obasanjo administration, in which El-Rufai served as minister, Nigeria focused on economic reforms and improving its place in the international economic community.

Its efforts were effective - according to El-Rufai, "GDP growth rates averaged 6 percent during the period [of Obasanjo's administration], poverty rates fell from 70 percent in 1999 to 54 percent in 2006, the exchange rate stabilised, inflation moderated and investment rates went up."

Additionally, the country paid off 4.6 billion dollars in debt to the Paris Club, a group of 19 countries that provides financial services to nations in debt.

Yet the Obasanjo administration's focus on economic reform, as opposed to political reform, actually made the country more unstable. "Politics is far more important than economics," El-Rufai said.

"I think we did not define 'reform' very comprehensively," he added. "Economic reform has been very useful in stabilising the African macroeconomy, but it has not done much more than that."

El-Rufai highlighted three areas that Nigeria's leadership should prioritise: implementing electoral reforms, investing in basic infrastructure, and resolving what he calls "the Niger Delta problem" - the security and human rights crisis in Nigeria's oil-rich delta area.

This crisis springs from tensions between oil corporations and Nigeria's indigenous ethnic minorities. As IPS reported earlier this week, some of these clashes have played out in U.S. courts, under the Alien Tort Claims Act.

Of these three reforms, El-Rufai considers electoral reform to be of the most immediate importance, because accountable leadership is a springboard for any other reforms.

"Most political leaders accept far-reaching reforms out of necessity," he said. "What I recommend is that the only way we can get political reform in Nigeria is to start with election reform - make the votes matter."

If a leader believes that s/he could potentially be kicked out of office, El-Rufai continued, then s/he will feel more pressure to not engage in corrupt practices.

In the 2007 elections, in which Yar'Adua was declared the winner, HRW reported a number of election abuses and irregularities. These included voter intimidation by PDP (Yar'Adua's party), money exchanged for votes, children voting, and partisans stealing ballots and ballot boxes.

HRW's letter criticises Yar'Adua's administration for still not having "investigated, much less prosecuted, those responsible for sponsoring or carrying out the 2007 election violence that left at least 300 dead."

This is one area in which the international community can be helpful. Carl LeVan, a professor at the School of International Service at American University, believes that pressure for fair elections could make leaders more accountable to the international community, as well as to their own people.

"A lot of leaders have discovered that there is no diplomatic consequence for stealing an election," he noted.

El-Rufai agrees, suggesting that outside countries help by having an increased presence in observing elections. To have a real impact, he says, Nigeria will need as many election observers as possible.

"Not tens, not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of election observers. One hundred in every voting booth," he said wryly.

There is reason for foreign nations to care about Nigerian governance - it is Africa's most populous country and second-biggest economy. It is also the 37th-largest economy in the world and the African continent's leading oil exporter. As the U.S. increasingly consumes West African oil, Nigeria's importance to the U.S. will certainly also grow.

Though the global oil market indeed never fails to capture international attention, it is still important not to forget what else is at stake - the Nigerian people's struggle for an accountable government.

"The public is largely on board [for political reform]," says LeVan, "and now we're in a situation in which we need to bring the politicians along, too."

Credit: IPS Africa