With Nigeria's dictators out, a leader grapples with graft

A week since becoming president, Obasanjo moves to root out

Helping Africa's most populous nation return to democracy was the easy part.

Now, a week after taking office as the first civilian leader in 15 years, Olusegun Obasanjo has quickly attacked a pervasive way of life in Nigeria: corruption.

The new president is up against a entrenched tradition - from customs officers who bully bribes out of travelers at Lagos airport to police officers who openly extort bribes from motorists, through civil servants who request a "settlement" before they can lift a finger, to organized scam-artists who cheat people globally, then to public officials and generals who salt away the country's enormous oil wealth.

Nigeria, which gained its independence from Britain in 1960, has made at least $250 billion from the sale of crude oil. But because of graft, lack of maintenance, cronyism, over-inflated contacts, and barefaced stealing, the country is among the world's poorest.

"Corruption, the greatest single bane of our society today, will be tackled head-on," said Mr. Obasanjo at his swearing-in ceremony last Saturday. "It has distorted and retrogressed development."

His first antigraft effort was to suspend all contracts and appointments made by the last military regime. Then he set up a panel to review all contracts, oil licenses, and appointments made from Jan. 1, 1999. The panel's head is a well-known anticorruption activist. Some of the newly elected governors have taken similar action.

The new president has promised to run a transparent government, set up an anticorruption agency, and introduce an anticorruption bill in the legislature.

Praise has been pouring in for the resolve of the new administration to redress corruption. But some Nigerians are still cautious, their skepticism informed by experience. Nigeria's history is littered with poorly implemented anticorruption policies.

Even the late dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, set up an agency called the War Against Indiscipline and Corruption. His administration ended up setting a record as one of the worst thieving regimes in Nigeria.

BUT Sam Nwaobasi, secretary-general of Action for Good Governance, believes Obasanjo might be different from the plundering pack. "Unless corruption is fought decisively, there can be no headway in Nigeria," he says. "We believe Obasanjo can do it because he has seen it all. He has a lot at stake. He wants to make history."

A retired general, Obasanjo was the first soldier to willingly hand over power to civilians in 1979. Outside power, he launched into the international scene.

He was the chairman of the Commonwealth Group of Persons on Apartheid, was a founding member of Transparency International, the Berlin-based agency committed to accountability and transparency, and was briefly considered for secretary-general of the United Nations. Though some Nigerians doubt his democratic credentials, Obasanjo became a leading critic of military rule in Nigeria and spent three years in jail.

Obasanjo won the Feb. 17 elections on the campaign pitch that he is the most qualified person to rescue Nigeria. Yet some people still see him as a stooge for the same military officers who looted the country, many of whom bankrolled his campaign. But he has said on many occasions that he would not be held hostage to the interests of his financiers.

"There will be no sacred cows," he said at his swearing-in ceremony. "Nobody, no matter who and where, will be allowed to get away with the breach or perpetration of corruption and evil."

Gbile Oshadipe, the editor of Integrity, a monthly newsletter devoted to honesty in government and business, said the president is just playing to the gallery. "His main test will be how he handles his sponsors. Otherwise, everything will be mere rhetoric. He needs to investigate these people, freeze their accounts, and ask for the repatriation of their stolen wealth back to Nigeria."

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