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Africa

President Buhari warns Nigerians over tough times ahead

President Muhammadu Buhari has told Nigerians to prepare for economic challenges as he vows to recover billions of dollars allegedly stolen by public officials. DW speaks to Liz Donnelly on how can this be done.

President Buhari was speaking after a meeting with the governors of Nigeria's 36 states and Federal Capital Territory in Abuja who said they were more than $3 billion (2.6 billion euros) in debt. Buhari also claims that the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan had left the treasury more or less empty.

DW: How is President Buhari going to recover the missing billions?

Lizzy Donnelly: The big question here is how he can even start. He is going to have to go back and review deals that were made, he will have to go back and review how transactions were carried out and how all this happened. This is extremely politically sensitive in Nigeria. It is very important but it will have to be managed with care. And it is the case that Nigeria is in financial difficulty, that the state governors are in debt, but part of this is about the so called missing billions from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

Is anybody prepared to estimate how much money he might be able to recover?

No, I think it is too soon to say. It is really about what money and from where. And it is a very important question for this government: how will he approach this? He is known for anti-corruption credentials but the approach to this will be critical, will he take a more of a punitive approach, will there be high level investigations and prosecutions for corrupt behavior in the past, will this be about improving transparency, accountability, performance of government departments in the future? These are really important questions.

What shape or form are those investigations likely to take? We are assuming that he is serious about fighting corruption.

Yes, that is an assumption and it is an assumption that is well founded, based on his performance as military ruler in the 1980s. He took rather a heavy handed approach to anti-corruption. It is not clear yet what he will do with the tools at his disposal to progress such investigation. There is, of course the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, it has yet to be seen what he will do with that. He is in a difficult condition, he may seek to rise above the politics inherent in this but it will at some point be perceived as political. He will need to tread very carefully but certainly Nigeria is in need of money. Its fiscal revenues have dropped significantly with the drop in the crude oil prices. It is certainly in need of greater transparency and efficiency and better performing government departments. But these are big steps to be taken. So he will need to proceed with caution, urgent and important as it is.

Is the fall in the price of oil the main reason for Nigeria's fiscal difficulties?

It is part of it, but no, at the peak of oil prices there were not particularly better development outcomes. This is more about the management of money than the availability of money. Now it is a problem that the coffers are nearly empty, civil servants do need to be paid and one of the big questions going forward for Nigeria on an anti-corruption drive is actually:how do you disincentivize corrupt activity?

Buhari says he wants to restore sanity to the financial system. Presumably this means persuading people to obey the rules when handling government money and staying on the right side of the law. Is that how you see it?

Yes, this will be very much about the rule of law and accountable governance. It will be about smart decision-making. There has been huge wastage in the past in Nigeria. So this is also about priorities, where do you spend your money? There are critical reforms that need to be taken forward, very expensive reforms.

Liz Donnelly is an expert on Nigeria at Chatham House, London.

Interview: Mark Caldwell

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