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Last Updated: Monday, 2 May 2005, 01:07 GMT 02:07 UK
Nigerians wary of corruption crackdown
Nigeria is vigorously campaigning for western donors to write off its $35bn debts - and is backing up its arguments with a crackdown on corruption.

Former inspector general of Nigeria's police Tafa Balogun
Former police chief Tafa Balogun appeared in court in handcuffs
Africa's most populous nation and the world's eight largest oil exporter is regularly ranked as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

Corruption and mismanagement mean that despite the country's vast oil wealth, some 60% of Nigerians live in poverty.

Much of the debt was built up during Nigeria's many years of military rule and was unashamedly pocketed by army generals.

Former leader Sani Abacha is accused of personally stealing $2.2bn during his five years in office.

Many Nigerian officials took their cue from their leaders.

Nigerian taxi and bus drivers keep a wad of small-denomination notes handy to pay off police officers manning frequent roadblocks.

Flurry of activity

When Olusegun Obasanjo won 1999 elections to restore civilian rule, he promised to stamp out the pervasive corruption.

He set up two commissions on corruption and fraud but until recently, nothing much had happened.

You can't fight corruption and, be effective in this matter - it is sporadic and spasmodic, when it has to be systematic
Gani Fawehinmi
Human rights lawyer
Not a single senior government official has been convicted of corruption-related charges.

In the past two months, two ministers have been sacked, the third most senior government official - the senate president - has been under pressure to resign, and the former top police officer has appeared in court in handcuffs - all accused of corruption. They all deny the charges.

The crackdown followed a 28-minute televised speech by Mr Obasanjo, in which he accused several MPs of receiving bribes from sacked Education Minister Fabian Osuji in return for passing his budget.

"The legislature cannot wallow in corruption and expect the outside world to take our pleas for debt relief very seriously," he said.

He later challenged anyone with corruption allegations against him or his family to make them public.

Nigerians broadly welcome Mr Obasanjo's moves but many are not convinced that they are seeing the beginning of the end of the vice which has blocking their country's advancement for so many years.


Leading human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi says that Nigerian society is permeated with corruption and it will take more than a few high profile sackings to make a difference.

"You can't fight corruption and, be effective in this matter. It is sporadic and spasmodic, when it has to be systematic."

Woman carrying firewood
Life is tough for most of those who live in the world's eight largest oil exporter
He also points to a constitutional clause which makes elected officials immune to prosecution.

A state governor being investigated for money laundering by police in the UK has used this clause to fend off investigations by the Nigerian police.

But Mohammed Ibrahim, from the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigeria, says the president's campaign will make a difference.

"This is not business as usual, he's serious about it," he says. "This is going to go a long way to change Nigeria."

However, the sackings come against the backdrop of political in-fighting in Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party, especially over who will be the party's candidate in elections due in 2007 - which Mr Obasanjo is barred from contesting.


Anthony Goldman, of Clear Water Research Services, a London-based political risk consultancy says this, rather than the campaign for debt relief, may be the real reason behind the timing of the crackdown.

"These corruption allegations, some people are saying, point to efforts by one faction to try and undermine another faction and that this is actually part of a blood-letting that has more to do with the internal politics of Nigeria than a genuine effort to clean it up."

We are spending more than 12 times our health budget on paying back the debt
Senator Udo Udoma
Mr Osuji believes he was sacked because he is seen as a loyalist of Vice President Atiku Abubakar, one of those seeking to succeed Mr Obasanjo.

But others hope that now the president is nearing the end of his second term, and no longer has to worry about pleasing his political allies, he may finally find the courage to tackle the problem.

"We are trying hard to be impressed, and not to be cynical," said Lillian Ekeanyanwu, who heads the Anti-Corruption Coalition. "So we say to the president: 'This is a step in the right direction'.

But even those who give Mr Obasanjo their cautious support, say for now it is little more than simply that: a step.


It is also not yet clear what donors think.

Many will ask why they should relieve the debts of what should be a rich country but which has been badly managed.

President Olusegun Obasanjo
Obasanjo says his hands are clean
One of those lobbying for Nigerian debt relief, Senator Udo Udoma, says that corruption is a two-way street and accuses western officials of also benefiting.

"Democracy, which it is very important that we sustain, needs visible results," he says.

"We are spending more than 12 times our health budget on paying back the debt."

But donors are every bit as sceptical as ordinary Nigerians and may want more concrete proof of serious and sustained action against corruption before they agree to forgive Nigeria's debts.

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