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Thursday, November 11, 1999 Published at 13:47 GMT


World: Africa

Nigeria confronts corruption

The Ajaokuta steel works: Billions of dollars wasted

With tackling corruption high on the agenda at the Commonwealth summit in Durban, our Lagos correspondent Barnaby Phillips looks at the challenge facing Nigeria's new leaders.


Watch Barnaby Phillips' report on the legacy of corruption
Nigeria, one of the most prominent Commonwealth countries, was a byword for misrule and corruption under military rule - and was suspended from the Commonwealth in 1995 because of human rights abuses.

But Nigeria returned to democratic rule earlier this year, and President Olusegun Obasanjo has promised to rid the country of the corruption which has plagued it ever since independence from Britain in 1960. He faces a daunting legacy.


[ image: Goats wander through the abandoned steel works]
Goats wander through the abandoned steel works
There are few places in Nigeria which give such a clear insight into the years of mismanagement as the massive Ajaokuta steel works in the centre of the country.

Although Ajaokuta has cost Nigeria billions of dollars, it has never produced a single piece of steel. Nobody will ever know how much money has been diverted from this ill-fated project into private pockets.

Construction started 20 years ago, and is still not finished. A skeleton staff forlornly patrols a plant that was meant to employ 10,000.

Ajaokuta's technology is now outdated and it is more economical for Nigeria to import steel than to keep the plant going. Goats and cattle wander around the rusting machinery of the steel rolling mill.

Furniture allowances


[ image: Another furniture delivery, at government expense]
Another furniture delivery, at government expense
Nigerians had hoped that the newly elected members of the national assembly would help to clean up politics. So far they have been disappointed - the members have already awarded themselves about $30,000 each to buy household furniture.

The assembly is lukewarm about the anti-corruption bill put forward by President Obasanjo. The bill proposes setting up a commission with draconian powers such as the right to break into premises, seize documents, and tap phone lines.

But many members of the national assembly believe the bill goes too far, and represents a threat to civil liberties. There is no chance of it being passed in the near future.

Abuses 'at the top'


[ image: Christopher Kolade: Individuals can make a difference]
Christopher Kolade: Individuals can make a difference
Meanwhile President Obasanjo has set up a team to investigate abuses which took place during the last months of military rule - a period when huge sums of money were misspent.

The team is led by Christopher Kolade, a respected industrialist. Dr Kolade has found widespread abuses in the awarding of government contracts during this period. He says these abuses went "to the very top".

But he also says that where the individual is determined to challenge a corrupt system, he or she can make a difference.


[ image: Corruption has drained money from public services like education]
Corruption has drained money from public services like education
"We had the story of a chief executive who was asked by his minister to pay for a certain contract and he said no, it's not right and I won't do that," Dr Kolade recalls.

"Most civil servants will tell you this would mean the heavens would fall in and it would cost you your job, but he is still there, he survived and he can tell the story."

President Obasanjo is certainly not the first Nigerian president to declare war on corruption - nor is he the first to investigate those who came before him. But he has promised the Nigerian people that this time around there will be no sacred cows - that all those responsible will be punished. There is a real window of opportunity, and a chance to learn from the mistakes of the past.



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