Corruption in Nigeria: can it be ended in land of greased palms?

A new ministry has been created to fight one of Nigeria's most serious problems - corruption. Known as the Ministry of National Guidance, it will attempt to lead some reluctant Nigerians back into the path of the straight and narrow, a task some observers think may be next to impossible.

The ministry will have a powerful guiding hand in Alhaji Maitama Sule, a leading member of the ruling National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and one of 29 ministers recently sworn in by President Shehu Shagari.

Mr. Maitama Sule was formerly Nigerian ambassador at the United Nations, where he earned an international reputation as hard-hitting chairman of the anti-apartheid committee.

The President himself has always enjoyed a reputation for financial honesty. Reelected in August to a second four-year term with a large majority of votes, Shagari feels politically strong enough to make a campaign against corruption one of the main goals of his new administration.

Another reason for the campaign may be that in the nation's new climate of economic austerity, which stems from its slump of oil revenues, Nigeria can no longer afford corruption in high places.

''All government functionaries, especially ministers, special advisers, and top government officials will be expected to demonstrate an exemplary standard of probity and integrity,'' President Shagari announced in his inauguration speech.

''Proven cases of abuse of office and corruption will attract immediate sanctions,'' he warned.

Shagari's drive to clean up government is reportedly one of the reasons he has retained only 7 of the 45 ministers from the previous administration. Nigerian ministerial appointments have been regarded as blank checks for making fortunes fast.

Under the country's United States-style Constitution, a Senate committee screened 35 ministerial nominees presented by the President.

The screening was far from being a formality, even though the NPN enjoys a huge majority in the legislative body.

Senators, possibly embarrassed by the poor performance of so many of the ministers they approved in 1979, were tough on the new candidates.

Nominees, including some of the most powerful people in the country, were required to bring tax clearance certificates as well as a letter of approval from the Code of Conduct Bureau and examination certificates.

Many of the candidates were grilled on their records in public office. Some were asked to defend themselves against allegations of tax evasion and financial mismanagement in public.

After two weeks of intensive grilling, the Senate rejected six nominations. Although reasons were not given, the rejections reportedly were due mainly to a lack of party commitment rather than financial probity.

This would appear to explain the rejection of the former Commonwealth assistant secretary-general, Emeka Anyaoku, who had been tipped as the new foreign affairs minister.

Another notable casualty was former Interior Minister Alhaji Ali Baba - the man who ordered the expulsion of more than 2 million illegal immigrants, mainly Ghanaians, last January.

Ali Baba's sumptuous private house-building activities apparently incurred senatorial disapproval.

But as one observer remarked, ''Corruption in Nigeria is like a Pandora's box: There is no end to it. If such criteria were strictly applied, the formation of a new government would be an extremely lengthy and difficult process.''

If Maitama Sule, the new minister in charge of cleaning up corruption, succeeds in his appointed task, it would be both an enormous achievement and a useful step toward his reported intention of running for the presidency in 1987.

He is said to want to run even though the NPN is headed toward nominating a southerner as its presidential candidate. Under the Constitution, President Shagari cannot stand for a third term of office.

Some observers forecast that Maitama Sule may switch to the northern-based People's Redemption Party or form his own party and take with him the northern Muslim vote.

It has taken President Shagari more than two months to form a new government and six posts have still to be filled.

One key post that remains unfilled is the newly created petroleum ministry. Petroleum exports represent 95 percent of Nigeria's foreign exchange earnings.

In Shargari's previous administration, energy was managed by a special presidential adviser, Yahaya Dikko. He was the only one of 10 advisers to be renominated.

The decision to create a separate petroleum ministry surprises many observers even though they recognize Nigeria needs to strengthen its administration of oil and energy.

Senior Nigerian officials have complained about discontinuity in energy policymaking. Over the past 20 years there have been seven energy bosses operating under various titles.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia has had a single energy minister during those two decades.

President Shagari also has economic recovery as another priority. More efficient economic management is the objective and one of the President's closest confidants, Adamu Ciroma, has been given the key finance post.

Mr. Ciroma, a former governor of the Central Bank, held the important agriculture post in Shagari's previous administration.

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