Skip to main content


October 14, 2007
INTRODUCTION Until very recently western governments and financial institutions that benefited immensely from the wealth of poor nations (laundered by irresponsible rulers) rejected the demand for the repatriation of such illicit funds. But in a determined bid to prevent the funding of terrorism by those who have engaged in corruption and drug trafficking western countries were compelled to support the United Nations Convention Against Corruption Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in October 2003. The Convention which came into force on December 14, 2005 has been signed by 140 countries and ratified by 38. In the global fight against corruption certain aspects of the fundamental rights of individuals and corporate bodies have been eroded. In particular, the right to property and privacy, lawyer-client confidentiality, secrecy of banking institutions etc are no longer recognized. Frustrated by delay tactics employed by rich criminal suspects charged with corruption the ICPC has advocated a suspension of human rights for a period of five years to enable the country to deal ruthlessly with the menace of corruption. While insisting that the human rights of every person be respected this paper is going to address the on-going official moves to frustrate the fight against corruption in Nigeria under the pretext of promoting the rule of law. The definition and implications of Corruption Although the term "corruption" is often employed in the context of a situation or incident, how do we define corruption? Since the term is being used for many purposes, it has been found difficult to define it. Even the recent UN Convention against Corruption merely describes but did not define corruption. The Convention however provides a comprehensive set of standards and measures to promote international cooperation and domestic efforts in the fight to prevent corruption. The Convention addresses glaring inadequacies in two of the most critical tools for combating international corruption: mutual legal assistance and repatriation of funds sent abroad by corrupt officials. I provide here two definitions: First, the dictionary definition of corruption is "lacking in integrity or dishonest practices". The second and perhaps the most popular definition of corruption have been provided by the World Bank. According to the Bank: The abuse of public office for private gains. Public office is abused for private gain when an official accepts, solicits, or extorts a bribe. It is also abused when private agents actively offer bribes to circumvent public policies and processes for competitive advantage and profit. Public office can also be abused for personal benefit even if no bribery occurs, through patronage and nepotism, the theft of state assets or the diversion of state resources.[1] There are many indicators to assess or measure corruption. One of them appears to be the existence of affluent living standard of a public official compared to his/her declared income or. Corruption occurs when a public official expects a bribe or gifts for doing an act which that public official is ordinarily required to do by law. In other words, when it includes additional payments to get things done. But corruption may also be present in the private sector, i.e., within private companies for their own interest, and also as a result of individuals engaging in corrupt behaviour with public entities for their own private benefit. Corruption can slow development rather than be beneficial. One of the most widely discussed consequences of corruption on political and economic wellbeing is the distortion of governmental expenditure caused by corruption. This often results in public money being spent on large-scale projects, typically military or infrastructure projects, rather than on the necessary public services such as health and education. The rationale behind this is that with large-scale expensive projects, more opportunities are presented for corrupt use or diversion of the funds. Raising the ethical standards of governance can lead to many benefits especially for the economic, political and social development of a country. It is seen as necessary for recognition of fundamental human rights, the rule of law, strengthening of institutions, political participation and strengthening of civil society, and democracy. Fighting corruption and promoting good governance is therefore crucial to developing an environment that facilitates the social, political and economic development of people within a country. However, while there are often general statements made about the effect of corruption on poverty and development, there is not an explicit recognition that corruption is more than just wealth misappropriation or abuse of power. Corruption impoverishes countries and deprives their citizens of good governance. It destabilizes economic systems, even of whole regions. Organized crime and other illegal activities flourish. Corruption erodes basic public functions and the quality of life of people. Bribery, for example, is universally regarded as a crime, but it also reflects socio-economic problems that require broad-based preventive measures, and the involvement of society at large. Another implication of global measures against corruption for governance in Nigeria is making government work better by improving the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of government, along with strengthening financial management and ensuring compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Finally, we must redesign our political and regulatory structures and procedures so as to reduce the opportunities for corruption and curtail other anti-system players that encourage corrupt practices to flourish. The effect of corruption on people’s rights and needs has largely been left out of the corruption debate. Given the importance of the human rights discourse in international law, examination of corruption from a human rights approach may shed some new light on the corruption debate, and provide some impetus for the way forward in anti-corruption efforts. High levels of corruption in governments have denied the majority of our people their social, economic and cultural rights. Corruption has also been responsible for the violations of human rights especially the rights to freedom from torture, life, liberty, and security of person. Corruption in Nigeria: an historical and contemporary perspective Although almost every government since 1960 has promised to raise ethical standards and restore accountability and transparency in governance, massive looting of the nation’s wealth and resources by high ranking state officials has remained a permanent feature of the country’s political life. In fact, over the years, many of the Nigerian political elites have generally sought to acquire the wealth they needed to make them the richest in the land, hoping thereby to gain political base, influence, legitimacy and identity. Corruption in Nigeria is as old as the country itself, though its nature, scope, and consequences have varied considerably over the years.[2] Indeed, from the late colonial period to date, commentators have expressed concern about the level of venality in the country.[3] According to Tignor, the British used their worry about political corruption in Nigeria to argue that the transfer of power ought to be slowed down.[4] A considerable amount of bribery, nepotism and the use of political office for personal enrichment existed in late colonial Nigeria.[5] Although the actual amount of political corruption in the country during this period is difficult to determine, its actual presence cannot be contested.[6] In fact, there were reports that almost all the regional governments plundered financial surpluses obtained through statutory control of export-crop marketing. The corrupt behaviour of most Nigerian political elites during this period clearly set the stage for a more resilient generation of corrupt public officials that have since independence plundered Nigeria’s wealth and resources, with almost absolute impunity. During the first and second republics government officials were in the habit of collecting 10% from contract funds. The era witnessed unprecedented level of venality by high-ranking politicians. Apart from corruption, corrupt practices were also manifested in the manipulation of the electoral process, politicisation of the judiciary and resort to trump up charges to intimidate political opponents of the government. Thus, the pervading culture of corruption was one of the reasons adduced by the armed forces when they sacked elected governments in January 1966 and December 1983. However, apart from Generals Murtala Mohammed and Mohammudu Buhari, other military rulers engaged in large scale corruption with impunity. Successive military regimes mismanaged the opportunities created by the relatively enormous increases in huge revenue from oil, obtained through compulsory public acquisition of majority shares in the oil-producing companies, as well as through taxation. Although corruption was widespread and well-documented, prosecutions in court were rare. The prevailing climate of impunity ensured that the practice of corruption flourished unchecked. The Mohammed-Obasanjo Administration set up an Assets Investigation Panel in 1975 to investigate the assets of state governors, federal commissioners, and high-ranking officials. Those found guilty of corruption were dismissed summarily, and the government confiscated their assets. Under the Buhari Administration, many politicians of the second republic were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for corruption and abuse of office. They were also asked to repay funds they were alleged to have stolen. However, the Babangida regime that assumed power in 1985 not only released most of the public officials awaiting trial and those convicted of corruption but rehabilitated them by offering them appointive positions. Babangida also restored to their original owners’ assets forfeited to the government. In 1989, the Babangida Administration set up a National Committee on Corruption and other Economic Crimes under the chairmanship of Justice Kayode Esho, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. The Committee, after extensive consultations, public hearings, and visits to other countries, submitted its report to the federal government on September 5, 1990. The Committee found unsatisfactory several legal rules dealing with corruption and offered instead a single law to deal comprehensively with corruption and other economic crimes. The Committee also recommended the establishment of an independent commission to tackle corruption. The government’s handling of the report and the scale of comprehensive corruption and outright plunder of the national wealth and resources under the Babangida Administration, showed that the regime never seriously intended to address corruption. Babangida’s own Political Bureau of 1987 attested to the level of political corruption in the country at the time. According to it, “corruption pervades all strata of the Nigerian society-from the highest levels of the political and business elites to the ordinary person in the village.” In effect, the Committee on corruption was set up merely as a ploy to mollify the public while the administration continued its expropriation of the nation's wealth and resources. According to Larry Diamond: “A new aspect involves widespread stories of corrupt conduct by the President himself. Never before in Nigeria has the head of state been so widely suspected of extensive personal involvement in corruption. Tales have been circulating for years of Babangida’s large cash gifts to military officers, cabinet ministers, traditional rulers, and potentially contentious opponents; of Mercedes Benz cars given to major newspaper editors and directors of state broadcasting corporations; of the president’s secret personal investments in banks and companies; off-the-books oil being lifted by private tankers.”[7] After General Babangida’s forced exit in August of 1993 and the short-lived Shonekan’s interim government, the Abacha Administration, with General Abacha himself heading the pack of plunderers, showed an insatiable appetite for wealth. Abacha surrounded himself with compromised military officers and a civilian class who helped him loot and plunder the nation’s resources with absolute impunity. Abacha, probably the most feared leader Nigeria has ever had, established a predatory relation with the Nigerian economy. He deployed the entire machinery of the state, including its repressive apparatus, to extract wealth from the economy. In the months following his death, revelations about the massive scale of corruption in his regime began to surface. General Abubakar who succeeded Abacha instituted an internal government investigation to track where the money had gone, but he resisted opposition demand for a public investigation. Under Abacha, several billions of dollars from the Nigerian treasury were illegally and fraudulently transferred to North American and European banks. Deploying a circle of family members, trusted aides and business associates, Abacha was reported to have siphoned $2.3 billion cash from Treasury, awarded contracts worth $1 billion to front companies and took $1 billion in bribes from foreign contractors. According to reports, Abacha’s wife was placed under house arrest after attempting to flee the country with several trucks full of foreign currencies. Further, about $2 billion was transferred in the 1990s from public funds to private accounts abroad held principally by members of the Abacha family. Much of what Abacha plundered during his stay in power may never be known, let alone repatriated. It should be noted that the Swiss Federal Banking Commission named a dozen banks, including Credit Suisse, as having failed to exercise due diligence in vetting depositors linked to Abacha who had together paid in $660 million. Much of this money had come into Switzerland from banks in the United Kingdom and the United States, and there had been flows back to the United Kingdom. The military government headed by General Abdulsalami Abubakar in 1998 recovered some funds from Abacha’s family and two former ministers that had apparently been appropriated in a fraudulent buy-back of Russian-held debt, but there were no prosecutions. Furthermore, the Obasanjo government recovered more funds and had some of Abacha’s private accounts frozen. It should be noted that Abacha family also agreed in principle to surrender about $1.2 billion of their wealth under a new compromise deal with the Government. This was considered a full and final settlement of what the Government believed the late Gen. Abacha looted from the treasury, although the government reported in November 2003 that it had reached agreement with the Swiss authorities for the return of close to $660, traceable to Abacha. Even though the Abdulsalami Abubakar regime was in power for only 11 months the looting spree of the treasury recorded during the period was scandalous. The $9.3 billion left in the foreign reserves by the Abacha junta was reduced to $3 billion even though no feasible project was executed. Oil blocks and questionable multi-billion naira contracts were hurriedly awarded on the eve of the exit of the government. The Obasanjo Administration appointed panels to investigate appointments and contracts made during the period leading to the transition to civilian rule, where billions of dollars were reportedly plundered and purloined, and into failed contracts and fraudulent land transactions under previous governments. Based on the report of the Panels the contracts were cancelled while General Abubakar was secretly made to refund some of his ill-gotten wealth to the coffers of the government. The return of democracy in 1999 was seen as a major landmark and opportunity for the restoration of justice, accountability, transparency and enjoyment of human rights, especially basic economic and social rights, of the Nigerian people. In fact, in his inaugural speech in May, President Obasanjo captured this expectation.[8] He acknowledged the devastation and decay wrought on Nigerian society by decades of grand corruption.[9] He pledged to take ‘immediate action’ to set new standards of governance based on integrity, transparency, and conduct worthy of public trust.[10] According to the President, Corruption is the greatest single bane of Nigerian society. No society can achieve anything near its full potential if it allows corruption to become full-blown cancer that it has become in Nigeria. Where official pronouncements are repeatedly made and not matched by action, government forfeits the confidence of the people and their trust. One of the immediate acts of this administration will be to implement quickly and decisively, measures that would restore confidence in governance.[11]

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('comments'); });

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('content1'); });

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('content2'); });