A Mr. Clean for Global Dirt?

A leader against global corruption, Olusegun Obasanjo, was swept to power recently in one of the world's most corrupt nations, Nigeria. That presents a challenge, and an opportunity, for reform.

General Obasanjo was one of the founders five years ago of Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based organization dedicated to reducing the corruption that damages progress in developing nations.

Sadly, his election as head of Africa's most populous nation was itself tainted by fraud. Still, most Nigerians appear to recognize Obasanjo's basic integrity and the risks he has taken to help establish democracy and improve human rights. He was a political prisoner for more than three years, emerging only last summer.

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Obasanjo's main goal will be rooting out Nigeria's notorious corruption. Each year TI surveys business leaders and international professionals on their perceptions of corruption in various nations. In the latest poll last September, Nigeria ranked 81st out of 85 countries - nearly the worst.

"If he can establish honesty in public service in Nigeria, it will be an accomplishment with beneficial consequences for all of Africa," states Peter Eigen, chairman of TI. At TI's founding, Obasanjo lamented the influence of Nigeria's tainted politicians, saying young people see as role models leaders who made money from corruption. Like his friend Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Obasanjo can provide a better model for Africa's youth. But he has a monumental task ahead.

First, he has to prove to all Nigerians - particularly those who didn't vote for him - that he represents a break with the military-dominated past. He was himself a military dictator in the '70s, but voluntarily handed power to a civilian government.

Second, he has to pull the country out of an economic tailspin caused largely by rampant mismanagement and graft under the late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha. The major industrial nations and global firms ought to help Nigeria regain its economic footing.

The global fight against corruption came into focus recently in Washington. Vice president Al Gore joined representatives of more than 80 nations at a White House conference on the topic late last month. It marked the ratification by 29 industrialized nations of an international treaty outlawing bribery of foreign officials.

To make the treaty work, nations rich and poor must unsparingly enforce anti-bribery laws. Wrist slapping won't do. A recent study found that an increase in the level of corruption from clean Singapore to still muddy Mexico was equivalent to raising Mexican taxes 20 percent. To put it mildly, that robs individuals, discourages investment, and stifles development. A global crackdown is clearly needed.

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