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Nigeria's hopeless fight against corruption

May 27, 2022

Seven years after President Muhammadu Buhari promised to swiftly defeat corruption, Nigerians who are now worse off than they were in 2015 doubt that the president's anti-graft war will ever succeed.

An election campaign billboard depicting Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and his Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo
Buhari's government voews to tackle corruption but the level of graft has increased so much that people have lost hopeImage: Reuters/A. Sotunde

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari during his 2015 election campaign not only promised to swiftly defeat the militant Islamist movement Boko Haram and boost the failing economy but also to take decisive actions against corruption.

A large number of the country's electorate supported his presidential bid at the ballot box, hoping for a turning point in the fight against endemic corruption. Even the media trumpeted his integrity in the run-up to the elections.

"One of the major plans on which the present government ... came on board, was to tackle corruption. But it has not been able to do so," Sheriffdeen Tella, professor of economics at Nigeria's Olabisi Onabanjo University, told DW.

"In fact, the level of corruption has increased so much that people have lost hope in his ability to do this," Tella added.

"And corruption has actually fought back. It has not only affected the education sector, it also affected the health sector and all other sectors of the economy."

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari greets his supporters after Friday prayers in his hometown Daura
The fight against corruption was a major element of Buhari's election campaignImage: Reuters/L. Gnago

It has been over seven years since Nigerians put their hope in "SaI Baba” as Buhari is popularly known.

Many Nigerians complain about how life has become worse since he came to power and express doubt over his promised anti-graft war.

Shocking theft

Lanre Arogundade, a trade unionist and former president of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), told DW that Nigerians' concerns are valid.

"Nobody can blame Nigerians if at this stage they are doubting the anti-graft war or its effectiveness. And the reason for this cannot be far-fetched," he told DW.

"One can give the striking example of the allegation against the accountant general of the federation that he singlehandedly stole about 80 billion naira [around €180 million]."

Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arrested the country's accountant general, Ahmed Idris, in connection with allegations of diversion of public funds. 

Supporters of incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, holding a poster of Buhari and and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, cheer as he arrives at a 2019 campaign rally in Abuja, Nigeria
Many Nigerians complain about how life has become worse since Buhari came to powerImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Curtis

"This development has actually confounded many to the extent that Nigerians have been calculating how many years it would take for a single individual to spend this money," Arogundade added.

Financial analysis indicated that if 1million naira was being spent every day, it would amount to 365 million naira in a year. It would therefore take 10 years to spend about 3.6 billion of the 80 billion naira. And 100 years to spend 36 billion naira.

One of the consequences of Idris' alleged theft is the closure of Nigeria's public universities. University lecturers have said he is partly responsible for the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) that has put the future of Nigeria's youth on hold.

Anywhere but Nigeria

Collin Xavier, a 20-year-old first-year international law student at Ukraine's Karazin Kharkiv National University, barely sleeps these days.

He is self-sponsored after training to be a stylist and designer at a Nigerian fashion school. 

His hunger for success led him to Ukraine for his education. His future had looked bright, until Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. He was lucky to escape with his life — and little else — to Berlin. 

A Nigerian student stranded in Sumy records his experience of the war in Ukraine
Young Nigerians who went to Ukraine for better education have lost everything to Russia's invasionImage: Privat

Now, squatting with two Arab families — also refugees — he stays awake every day until 3 a.m. to 4 a.m. thinking and hoping.

The night breeze helps him think straight to mull the dilemma and trauma of losing everything.

Returning to Nigeria isn't really an option for Xavier. He fears the endemic corruption which has brought the country to its knees. He worries about the quality of education in Nigeria because of the incessant closure of universities due to striking lecturers — caused by the corrupt actions of public officeholders.

Deeper and deeper

Corruption is certainly not a new phenomenon in Nigeria. Rather, it has long been an intrinsic element of Nigerian society affecting virtually all spheres of the West African country.

In 2021, Nigeria ranked 154th out of 180 countries listed in Transparency International's Corruption Index.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that corruption is culturally acceptable because members of the family, tribe or ethnic group benefit from an individual's ill-gotten gains.

At the point when former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan relinquished his government role, the country was at the brink of ruin due to endemic corruption being recklessly displayed.

Seven years later, following a historic change of power on the grounds of defeating corruption in Nigeria, West Africa's most populous nation is said to be sinking deeper into the mire of corruption.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari gestures to supporters after casting his vote in his hometown of Daura in 2019
Whether in terms of his promise to swiftly defeat Boko Haram or fix the economy, it was clear Buhari's integrity would be testedImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Curtis

Nigerian security forces are battling a 12-year jihadist insurgency by Boko Haram militants in the country's northwest that has killed more than 40,000 people.

Whether in terms of the president's promise to swiftly defeat Boko Haram or fix the economy, it was clear Buhari's integrity would be tested. 

Many Nigerians believed in him as they visited his past — when he was military head of state and was considered a no-nonsense person — thus invested a whole lot of hope in him. In-depth research indicated that such investment is unprecedented in the history of Nigeria.

Even after his first four years in office, many gave the Buhari-led government the benefit of the doubt that it would be difficult to fix the state of the nation, given the degree of rot they had inherited.

A salad of hope

The government started on a very good note but completely did almost a 360 degrees at the point when many of the efforts were about yielding fruits, Olanrewaju Suraju, chairman of the Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA) told DW. He said that he holds Buhari's cabinet members responsible for this.

"And, a number of them — a host of many of the ministers who are true to type — the same politicians who have only just changed their political party but not their orientation, decided to take advantage of the opportunity of the anti-corruption to also be corrupt and share in some of the recovered loot," he said.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari swears in ministers into his cabinet in Abuja, Nigeria November 11, 2015
Buhari wins the presidency after vowing to crack down on corruption in Africa's biggest economyImage: Reuters/A.Sotunde

Noting that President Buhari maybe overwhelmed, Suraju said, "We want to see a situation where he is holding people to account. It is not just a few; it has to be holistic. We expect more firm action from the president and that actually is missing in some instances. So, that gives a whole lot of cause for concern."

To highlight the importance of anti-corruption for socio-economic growth — which is being raised globally — Buhari through the anti-graft agency; EFCC, has arrested, detained and even prosecuted some public office holders, the latest being the country's accountant-general for the staggeringly monumental fraud he's been perpetrating for years.

Nigeria's Federal High Court sentences the former pension fund chairman Abdulrasheed Maina to eight years imprisonment
Nigeria's Federal High Court sentences the former pension fund chairman Abdulrasheed Maina to eight years imprisonmentImage: Federal High Court Abuja

But Nigerians are saying that fighting corruption should not just be about probes, arrests and prosecutions, it should be about prevention — something the Buhari-led government lacks.

"What we have not seen under this government is the prevention of corruption such that it keeps happening again, and again, and again," Arogundade, the trade unionist told DW. 

Poor preparedness and failing economy

The Buhari-led government seems incapable of coping with the level of corruption that has engulfed the economy.

Investigations reveal it has been quite hard for the government to save the fainting economy because the consequences of corruption are largely affecting the production, as well as distribution of goods.

Professor Tella told DW that the government was not prepared for the magnitude of problems it has to deal with, and it could not even begin to overcome them — not to mention providing the strong leadership necessary to grow the Nigerian economy.

A man carries tanks of petrol during a nationwide strike as cars queue at a gas station in Lagos on February 1, 2012
Nigerians doubt whether the Bhuari-led government can curb corruption and fix the economy as the price of diesel skyrocketsImage: AFP/Getty Images/E. Arewa

Arogundade also doubts whether the government can fix the economy.

"It is clear that things are really not working. Diesel which is supposed to be deregulated, and part of the argument for deregulation was that ultimately it would bring prices down, but prices keep skyrocketing everywhere. So, there are obvious question marks over  the ability of the government to actually fix the economy."

‘Interesting' days ahead

HEDA's chairman told DW that the fraudulent activities perpetrated within the last eight years would be exposed after the present government relinquishes power because the law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies are presently timid to do that now.

"We are going to see a whole lot of expose after the government leaves office. Many of the law enforcement and anti-corruption agencies are either compromised; timid, to actually reveal some of the atrocities that they know  or reported to them," he said.

Suraju said Nigeria's anti-corruption agencies have not attained the level of independence that guarantee their security of tenure or independence to speak up against the corruption and atrocities being committed by political officeholders.

Nigeria Rivers State | Wahlkampf Muhammadu Buhari, Präsident - 12.02.2019 *** Supporters of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari attend a campaign rally ahead of the country's presidential election in Rivers State, Nigeria, February 12, 2019
Many Nigerians support naming and shaming suispects being probed for corruption Image: Reuters/Nigeria Presidency/Bayo Omoboriowo

"So, they technically would rather not jeopardize their office and just choose to wait till when it is considered expedient for them to actually spill the beans and then take appropriate action. We would see a whole lot of that happening when this government leaves office," he added.

Nigerians have taken to various social media platforms calling for the public identification of individuals and institutions being investigated for corruption by the various anti-graft agencies.

They say naming and shaming would be very helpful to the country because corruption is already killing the country and people, so should be a source of concern to everyone.

Way forward

All experts sampled for this artcle told DW that Nigeria needs a government that would, from the beginning, tackle corruption with its own transparency and accountability clearly seen. They all expressed worry that it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe that if Buhari could not do it, who else could?

Professor Tella said there was no way out for Nigeria in the short run: "Until after the election of next year, that is 2023, that is when we can say we are ready to improve either on the issue of corruption or the economy generally."

He said an anti-graft war requires having a plan — a national plan — something the Buhari-led government lacks. The plan should include available resources, where the country and government wants to be at any point in time, amongst others.

Supporters of Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari celebrate near a vehicle decorated with pictures of him
Nigerians wonder that if Buhari can not win the promised anti-graft war, who could?Image: Reuters/N. Nwanri

"What it should do first, is to have a plan. And that plan must be able to lead us to where we should be may be in the next 20, 30 years," Professor Tella told DW. "For now, there is no such plan and until we have such a thing, the government would continue to be on trial and error over time."

Lanre Arogundade doubted the possibility of an end to corruption in Nigeria. "We keep talking about the same thing: The fact that corruption is still very much there. It seems as if we are sitting on a barber's chair that keeps rotating and nothing much has actually changed."

"It would have been good for one to be able to say that there is some form of end in sight to endemic corruption in the country but definitely it is something that is just too difficult to say," he continued. "There is no way that one cannot be pessimistic when it comes to this particular issue."

Qudus Ayinla Rasheed, 20-year-old first-time voter, poses during a party in Ilorin in Kwara State, Nigeria February 1, 2019
Nigerians say that fighting corruption should not just be about probes, arrests and prosecutions — it should be about preventionImage: Reuters/

Suraju said a holistic change would begin with Nigerians revisiting their personal and family values because public office holders do not fall from heaven; they are from families. "It is a function of garbage in, garbage out. The moment we keep producing these level of characters, then we would still have them aspiring and becoming public office holders that would then be causing us this level of hardship."

He said imbibing the culture and orientation of not just patriotism, but also of responsibility in Nigerian children is crucial.

"We would really need to check kind of persons and characters that we are throwing up within our system and also our homes to go into the society."


Tobore Ovuorie
Tobore Ovuorie Tobore Ovuorie is a multiple award-winning Nigerian investigative journalist and creative writer.
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