A light shines on Nigerian corruption

Days of mass protests have the potential to turn Africa’s largest economy toward clean governance.

People in Lagos, Nigeria, protest against police brutality Oct. 15.

For decades in Nigeria, businesspeople in Africa’s largest economy have accepted that corruption is the cost of doing business. They have witnessed the failure of successive anti-corruption initiatives by government. The current elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, even headed the African Union’s corruption awareness campaign in 2018. Despite these efforts, the country is still ranked low on a global corruption index. According to a poll last year by Transparency International, nearly half of Nigerians who engaged with a public service – schools, police, utilities – said their transactions involved graft.

In recent days, however, mass protests have dealt a blow to that pessimism. The spark was the killing of a young man by members of a special plainclothes police unit notorious for murder, torture, and extortion. A video of the incident went viral. The outpouring of popular anger prompted Mr. Buhari to announce that the unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, would be abolished.

Given that government leaders had already promised four times to disband the unit, his announcement felt flat. The largely leaderless protests have continued across major cities. As if to confirm the protesters’ skepticism, police keep using heavy-handed tactics against them. The military announced it too was prepared to step in.

Many Nigerians seem unfazed. They are less fearful and less resigned to the inevitability of corruption and the system of patronage that comes with it. “This protest is not just about [the police unit] but about bad governance,” a 27-year-old lawyer told The Wall Street Journal. According to the latest Transparency International survey, more than half of Nigerians believe most or all public officials are involved in corruption.

Mr. Buhari, a retired general who led a military government in the 1980s, can claim some credit for shifting public expectations. Since returning to power five years ago, this time as a democratically elected civilian, he has launched several investigations of high-profile officials and bolstered protections for whistleblowers. His anti-corruption agencies have recovered billions in pilfered public funds. Police opened a call center to field and investigate public complaints of misconduct.

These measures may be achieving only modest or halting results. But they are helping to build awareness that norms of honesty, accountability, and transparency are possible and expected. A 2017 Chatham House survey of Nigerian attitudes toward corruption found that “if people were aware of how commonly held their personal beliefs are, they would be more motivated to act collectively against corruption.”

That survey foresaw the current protests: “Anti-corruption efforts may have the greatest chance of success if they stem from a shared sense of responsibility and urgency – and thus foster collective grassroots pressure.”

In recent years, youth-led protest movements have erupted around the world demanding honest governance. Now it is Nigeria’s turn. Instead of Africa’s most populous country remaining an icon of corruption, its youth have opened a door for it to be a beacon.

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