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Friday, June 11, 1999 Published at 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK

World: Africa

Q & A: Can Obasanjo clean up?

The Economist Intelligence Unit's Antony Goldman answers some questions raised by new civilian President Olusegun Obasanjo's promise to stamp out corruption.

Is Obasanjo's war on corruption genuine?

Yes and no. Obasanjo led a military administration in the late 1970s that remains one of the cleanest in Nigeria's history.

[ image:  ]
His personal credentials as an anti-corruption activist have been further enhanced by his work with Transparency International, a non-governmental organisation that campaigns against corruption world-wide.

However, since independence all newly-arrived leaders in Nigeria have pledged to eliminate such practices, only for several of them later to be accused of theft on a spectacular scale.

The problem now runs so deep through government and into society that good intentions alone are probably insufficient.

How much money is missing and can it be retrieved?

The nature of corruption means that precise figures are hard to establish, although particular instances have been well-chronicled.

[ image: Government has listed $1bn worth of assets seized from family and aides of Sani Abacha]
Government has listed $1bn worth of assets seized from family and aides of Sani Abacha
For example, windfall profits of $10 billion that oil-producing Nigeria earned during the Gulf crisis in 1990, when prices increased dramatically, disappeared immediately.

Friends and family of the late dictator, Sani Abacha, are alleged to have stolen $3.4 billion between 1993-98, of which about $1bn has been recovered.

But other forms of corruption, such as payment of commissions and favoured access to government contracts, as well as foreign bank accounts and clever cover-ups, mean tracing stolen money and can prove extremely difficult.

Will a civilian government be less corrupt than a military one?

[ image: Can President  Obasanjo change ingrained habits?]
Can President Obasanjo change ingrained habits?
Past experience would indicate not. Two previous experiments with constitutional government (1960-66 and 1979-83) were marked by corruption on a scale that would have put most military regimes to shame.

And even under military rule, most government ministers and senior officials were civilians.

Nigeria's cleanest governments have benefited from the type of firm leadership that Obasanjo has promised, but suspicions remain that many politicians see elected office more as a business opportunity than a public service.

Is corruption too deeply ingrained in Nigerian culture to be changed?

Corruption permeates many aspects of life in Nigeria, from a well-placed official taking million-dollar kickbacks on big government contracts to a traffic policeman who supplements a $20 a month salary by encouraging motorists to show some form of consideration.

Nigeria elections
To eliminate corruption altogether will therefore require something akin to a cultural revolution with a high political risk factor.

However, a piecemeal approach is doomed to failure.

Could the military intervene again?

Nigerian generals used corruption as one of the main pretexts for overthrowing the two previous elected civilian regimes in 1966 and 1983.

But times have changed. After 15 years of military rule, when the economy collapsed and the army's reputation and integrity took a battering, popular hostility towards the khaki brigade is now acute.

And in the prevailing international climate, military intervention has become distinctly unfashionable.

If President Obasanjo is able to deliver a more effective, less corrupt government, and if living standards begin to rise, the prospects for a new coup will recede.

But if he fails, the army remains the one, enduring political institution in Nigeria, and many junior and middle-ranking officers continue to harbour ambitions on high office.

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