Nigeria's Buhari puts anticorruption drive into high gear

The new president took office six months ago, promising to put an end to impunity in the business and political elite. Last week, he started to deliver.

Sunday Alamba/AP/File
Nigeria will start selling and buying oil and gasoline directly to cut out middlemen and curb graft, the new managers of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., in Abuja, announced Tuesday. The major policy shift fits new President Muhammadu Buhari’s plan to curb corruption endemic in the industry in Africa’s biggest oil producer.

The penalties handed out by the Nigeria government last week came rapidly, one blow after another.

First there was the suspension of the CEO of a major banking franchise for supposedly misleading statements over two years. That was followed by a $9.4 million fine imposed on First Bank of Nigeria, one of the country’s largest banks.

But the biggest surprise was when the government fined MTN, Africa’s largest cell carrier, $5.2 billion for failing to disconnect customers with unregistered SIM cards.

In a country where impunity by big business and the political elite is rarely punished, the uptick in penalties has been eye-catching. But for those who voted for President Muhammadu Buhari, each one is a confirmation that their leader's campaign promise to bring discipline to Nigeria is taking root.

It also underscores what many Nigerians have always said: that it takes a strongman to whip Africa’s most populous country into shape.

"He has had for a long time ... a reputation for anticorruption efforts,” says Darren Kew, an expert on Nigeria at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. "And the message since [Buhari] has taken office is that there will be no tolerance of corruption. But there hasn’t been any major cleaning or vetting efforts that have happened in a comprehensive way."

'Baba go slow'

Indeed, in his first six months of office, Mr. Buhari earned the nickname “Baba Go Slow” for his unhurried, deliberate style of leadership. That may have been in part because his initial tasks were daunting: confronting the Boko Haram insurgency, vetting a cabinet, and trying to implement policy with “virtually empty” government coffers.

Many say, however, that the mere anticipation of inquiries, coupled with Buhari’s reputation for intolerance from his time as Nigeria’s military ruler in the 1980s, was enough to get much of the bureaucracy to clean house themselves. Within days of the election, before Buhari was even inaugurated, there was a rise in agencies declaring various anticorruption victories, Mr. Kew says, something that will likely continue.

“I think that this kind of take-no-prisoners approach that characterizes his military days has preceded him," he says. "And many Nigerian expect something similar to come out of him this time." 

Buhari established his reputation as a tough enforcer three decades ago, when he announced a "war against indiscipline" after leading a successful military coup. 

"By the time Buhari took over in 1983, Nigeria … was literally in a state of lawlessness. Buhari and his next-in-command gave us the kind of leadership we needed to restore sanity to our society," says Olusola Ojo, an international relations professor at McPherson University in Ogun state.

Buhari has indicated that he will operate differently as an elected leader. But the signs of increased regulation and crackdowns are  being credited to him. Each time an agency makes a big arrest or hands out a fine, such as the MTN judgment, Buhari benefits because it demonstrates progress toward key campaign promises.

Still, he has been heavily criticized for taking more than five months to pick a cabinet at a time when expectations are high and the desire for quick results is strong. 

“He needs to capitalize on this time where others are willing to accept some real house cleaning on the issue of corruption,” Kew says. “If the public begins to get more jaded about it, it is going to be more difficult for the president to go after big politicians, and get potential support for his bills."

Corruption targets

Some of those big politicians include Diezani Alison-Madueke, the oil minister under former President Goodluck Jonathan. Ms. Alison-Madueke was arrested Oct. 2 in London on charges of bribery and money laundering, capping a five-year tenure widely seen as a period of rampant corruption and theft. Sambo Dasuki, the former national security adviser, was also recently charged with illegally possessing weapons after his home was raided over the summer.

Opposition leaders have criticized some of the moves, arguing that he is only going after former Jonathan administrators. The biggest question is whether he would be willing to go after those in his cabinet, or even his inner circle.

His first test has already occurred: in September, current Senate President Bukola Saraki of the ruling APC was arraigned for alleged false asset declaration. Buhari immediately disassociated himself from Mr. Saraki, who played a big role in helping the president win last March's election.

But while many of his supporters are encouraged, they are waiting to see if Buhari sustains his anticorruption drive.

"I think from the public perspective, people will be looking closely to see what he does," Kew says. "It was one of the major expectations that the public had in voting for him this year in the national elections."

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