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Public corruption in Nigeria nothing new

| Monday, July 25, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

In Nigeria, billions of dollars each year flow illegally from public coffers into private hands. Nigeria's kleptocracy undermines the regime's ability to combat Boko Haram, a deadly terrorist movement that has displaced two million people in the country's war-ravaged northeast.

In a new Council on Foreign Relations corruption brief, “Improving U.S. Anticorruption Policy in Nigeria,” I argue that the United States could help deter corruption in Africa's largest economy and most populous country. Following Muhammadu Buhari's 2015 presidential election victory, senior U.S. policymakers saw an opportunity to support his aggressive anticorruption efforts. Thus far, U.S. efforts have consisted mostly of modest assistance programs for police investigators and civil-society watchdogs.

Here's the problem, from a policy perspective: Corruption is treated as a secondary, stand-alone issue. In fact, corruption is a potent threat to Washington's efforts to support socioeconomic development, tackle security issues and improve governance in Nigeria.

In “This Present Darkness: A History of Nigerian Organized Crime,” the late Stephen Ellis quotes Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in 1950 decrying “the twin curses of bribery and corruption which pervade every rank and department” of government. The Nigerian League of Bribe Scorners, a civil-society organization at the time, likewise complained that “bribery with its allied corruption is deeply planted in this country.” Tafawa Balewa, who became Nigeria's first post-independence prime minister in 1960, later was assassinated in a coup planned by five officers who claimed Nigeria's civilian government was too corrupt.

Over the next six decades, corruption thrived under both civilian and military-led governments, implicating leaders of all ethnic and religious affiliations. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nigeria's main anti-corruption body, is actively investigating dozens of sitting and former officials.

Given the scope and scale of Nigeria's corruption and the threat it poses to specific areas where Washington devotes considerable time and resources, stronger anticorruption policies could be a force multiplier, amplifying the impact of U.S. assistance to Nigeria. I argue that three quite feasible policy actions could achieve this: establishing an interagency working group on Nigerian kleptocracy, stationing an FBI investigator in the capital, Abuja, and promulgating an executive order restricting financial transactions by corrupt Nigerian officials and freezing, or even seizing, their assets.

These steps could significantly reduce illicit financial outflows from Nigeria, estimated at more than $178 billion from 2004 to 2013, according to Global Financial Integrity. Without a dedicated FBI investigator at the U.S. Embassy, for example, deepening bilateral cooperation on corruption cases will be difficult. But tougher scrutiny of Nigerian transactions into U.S. accounts will help discourage kleptocratic behavior from Nigerian officials.

Matthew Page is an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

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