Thursday, November 11, 1999 Published at 13:47 GMT
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.
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.
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Ajaokuta's technology is now outdated and it is more economical for Nigeria to import steel than to keep the plant going.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.
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'
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.
"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.