2016 is already a testing year for Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari. While there is optimism that he is making progress in the widely publicised war against corruption, Nigeria’s poor governance record has recently come under renewed scrutiny and tangible results are needed to maintain voter and
In the face of falling oil prices and a historically weak naira, not only is there a moral imperative for the government to recover misappropriated state funds, there is also a pressing financial need as well.
Buhari has a reputation for being a disciplined statesman who, while in power in the mid-1980s, cracked down on corruption and public disorder. The largely free and fair elections in April 2015 were hailed as a milestone for Nigerian multiparty democracy, and Buhari began his tenure riding on a wave of hope and optimism.
The new president openly expressed his intention to target individuals perceived to have wrongfully benefited from connections to the previous administration. In particular, he has set his sights on the country’s petroleum industry, where gross misappropriation of funds has cost the state an estimated $20 billion over the past five years.
Shortly after his inauguration, Buhari began increasing the capacity of Nigeria’s primary anti-corruption investigatory agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). The body’s new chairman, Ibrahim Magu, is seen by his peers as incorruptible, and officers accused of illegally leaking internal documents have been arrested. Last August, Buhari also created a seven-member presidential committee to advise his administration on implementing reforms in the Nigerian criminal justice system. In January, he submitted two new anti-corruption bills to the National Assembly, one of which is specifically focused on anti-money laundering measures. He has also announced that Nigeria will be joining the Open Government Partnership, an international body designed to increase transparency in government activities, particularly public procurement.
Forensic audits of 80 revenue-generating state agencies have also been commissioned. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), which regulates Nigeria’s oil and gas industry and is responsible for all federal government participation in the sector, has been overhauled. Over successive administrations the corporation was the primary vehicle for corruption in Nigeria, particularly during the tenure of former minister of petroleum, Diezani Alison-Madueke. Within three months of stepping into office, Buhari dismissed the NNPC board, retired eight of the group’s executive directors and appointed former ExxonMobil executive Ibe Kachikwu as new interim managing director. A review of the NNPC’s partnerships with foreign and local companies is expected and in March the government announced plans to break up the corporation into 30 new ‘profit-making’ entities.
Buhari has openly called on other countries – specifically the US, the UK and the UAE – for assistance in recovering misappropriated funds. Numerous Nigerian business people, politicians and military officers are known to have laundered money through international financial centres, particularly by investing in property overseas. Speaking at last week’s landmark Anti-Corruption Summit, held in London, Ibrahim Magu said that around $37 billion had been routed through London between 2014 and 2015. Responding to UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s unguarded comments that Nigeria is ‘fantastically corrupt’, Buhari said that rather than seeking an apology, he is interested in the return of assets held in the UK and offshore UK jurisdictions.
There is already evidence of some international cooperation. In October 2015 Alison-Madueke was detained in London as part of an investigation into suspected bribery and money laundering offences. It is widely believed this UK operation was conducted in close coordination with Nigerian authorities, who raided Diezani’s Abuja home on the same day. On a trip to the UAE in January, Buhari signed a set of new legal assistance agreements, including one focused on the recovery and repatriation of stolen funds. Swiss authorities have also confirmed they are assisting with a UK-led investigation into Nigerian oil businessman and former Diezani associate, Kola Aluko.
Despite these achievements, Buhari is yet to prosecute any grand corruption cases. While there have been several notable arrests – including former national security advisor Sambo Dasuki – no one with links to the oil and gas industry has been indicted by the Nigerian authorities. This will need to change over the coming months if Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign is to retain its credibility. His actions will, however, also need to be carefully measured in order to avoid accusations of selective justice. Speaking in early February, the president explained that the Nigerian authorities are struggling to collect sufficient evidence to prosecute offenders in the petroleum sector. This careful collation of legally sound evidence is of utmost importance. Historically, Nigeria has been weak in prosecuting financial offenders and Buhari has said the Nigerian judiciary remains his ‘main headache’ in the fight against corruption.
Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign is also unfolding against the backdrop of particularly turbulent times for the country. With oil accounting for around 75 percent of government revenue, a weakened naira and tumbling global petroleum prices are having a profound effect on financial stability. A month after taking office, Buhari announced that the Nigerian Treasury was ‘virtually empty’. In a recent interview with BBC Africa, he admitted that authorities still have ‘no idea’ of the value of the assets they will be able to reclaim.
As the fiscal challenges facing Africa’s largest economy continue to grow, the public and investors are seeking evidence that Buhari’s strong rhetoric will yield tangible results throughout the rest of 2016.