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Neither the latest Transparency International (TI) corruption perception index which ranked Nigeria 154 out of 180 countries, nor the government’s reaction to the ranking could have come as a surprise to any long-term observer of Nigerian affairs.
Released last month, the 2021 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) confirmed what many Nigerians know intuitively—that a steady stream of official antigraft rhetoric has hardly made a dent on what many agree is the most formidable perennial challenge to the country’s long-term stability. President Buhari’s sentiment to the effect that “if Nigeria does not kill corruption, then corruption will kill Nigeria,” is widely shared.
Future of Democracy
Not only is Nigeria down five places from its 2020 ranking, its total score of twenty-four out of a maximum one hundred points represents a drop for the third successive year, making it West Africa’s second most corrupt country. Guinea-Bissau, still reeling from a failed military takeover in early February, holds the dubious honor of being the most corrupt.
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For Nigerians, the global antigraft body’s observation that most countries are in fact struggling, and specifically that “131 countries have made no significant progress against corruption over the last decade” offers only cold comfort.
Official reaction to the ranking was predictable. Presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu described the report as “sensational and baseless.” Speaking on primetime television, Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) Abubakar Malami, was more helpful, arguing that the report “does not support the empirical evidence,” and that evaluating the success of the administration’s anti-corruption measures “should not be an exclusive position of the TI.” Malami also pointed to a 2019 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Survey on Corruption in Nigeria which notes some progress in the antigraft war, and the African Union’s (AU) recognition of Buhari as “the champion of anti-corruption in Africa.”
Malami has a point. The said UNODC report, an assessment of “the likelihood of citizens being approached for the payment of bribes as well as the frequency of such requests and actual payments” did indeed show that “although still relatively high, the prevalence of bribery in Nigeria has undergone a statistically significant decrease since 2016, when it stood at 32.3 percent.”
For a country mired in everyday corruption, this is not insignificant, and the attorney general is right to point to it.
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It is also true that in 2018, the AU named Buhari as its first ever anti-corruption champion, while, during an official visit to Nigeria in October of the same year, AU chairperson Moussa Faki lauded the Buhari administration’s anti-corruption efforts and praised Buhari for his “dedication” and “style of leadership.”
In 2003, the AU adopted the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (AUCPCC) and went on to designate 11 July of every year as African Anti-Corruption Day. From this standpoint, the continental body’s commendation of Nigeria’s efforts is noteworthy indeed.
Finally, Malami invoked the fact that by the end of last year, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the leading governmental agency for the investigation of fraud and corruption allegations, had “recorded over 2,000 convictions,” compared with “about 103 prosecutions and convictions” when the administration took office in 2015.
Yet, none of this suffices to invalidate Transparency International’s ranking of Nigeria. Some might argue, and not without merit, that the increase in number of convictions is an indication that the problem persists. The AU accolade, while important, was not meant as a definitive stamp of acquittal, and could be said to be a low bar given the overall climate in the region. Lastly, for all the ostensible good news from the UNODC survey—for instance, “the prevalence of bribery in relation to several types of public officials has decreased significantly since 2016” —it still estimates that “some 117 million bribes are paid in Nigeria on a yearly basis.”
More significantly, bribes—while a crucial indicator of corruption—do not begin to capture the depth and scope of everyday corruption in Nigeria, which boils down to the widely acknowledged reality that rarely does anything get done without money exchanging hands. The greater the value of the service being sought, the higher the fee. Police conversion of checkpoints into spaces of unofficial toll collection is widely, if justly, declaimed; but Nigerians understand that police misconduct is by no means an outlier. Studies by Wale Adebanwi, Steven Pierce, and Daniel Jordan Smith respectively render various dimensions of the problem in vivid detail.
Ordinary people being shaken down by law enforcement is just a tip of the proverbial iceberg. The most brazen larceny often involves highly placed members of the political class who, if convicted, get nothing more than what is effectively a legal slap on the wrist, or, failing that, an official pardon. A retinue of high-profile corruption cases, the most recent involving Deputy Commissioner of Police Abba Kyari and former EFCC Chairman Ibrahim Magu has called into question the Buhari administration’s commitment to fighting corruption and confirmed popular skepticism that its antigraft rhetoric is just that.
Understandably fatigued, most Nigerians were not surprised to see the names of leading politicians and other members of the political and financial elite on the list when a local newspaper leaked information last year about high placed Nigerians with secret assets in tax havens. A report by the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) calculates that the country hemorrhages between $15 billion and $18 billion annually to illicit financial outflows. The figure for the continent is $50 billion. According to a 2020 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, Dubai’s property market attracts “tainted money” from “corrupt and criminal actors from around the world,” including Nigeria.
The existence of institutions like EFCC and the less heralded Independent Corruption Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) demonstrates government acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation. These institutions are vital and can do with financial and logistical assistance from Western countries and anticorruption bodies.
What is less clear is whether a problem as endemic as corruption in Nigeria can be tackled by establishing institutions, even the most well-resourced. What can institutions do when the normative order is scrambled?
For now, the moral compact of Nigerian corruption subsists as follows: government pretends to fight corruption; Nigerians pretend to take government seriously.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.