Of corruption and elections
Rose Umoren
Published: 01-JAN-03

In the cacophony of the four-month- long elections starting this month (December), there is a deafening silence on one issue Nigeria badly needs to confront: corruption, which has accelerated since democracy with some $36.8bn (N5trn) in public expenditure melting in three years leaving few traces.

The situation is now such that a whole generation of Nigerians have grown up to see corruption which started in earnest following the oil price boom of the 1970s, accelerating with each successive government, as de rigeur.

Consequently, few make much of their country continuously topping global corruption tables compiled by, among others, Transparency International (TI) co-founded by President Olusegun Obasanjo, and the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to whom their country owes most of its $32bn debt. This is even as Cameroun which traditionally traded the numbers one and two spots with Nigeria ranks 7th in this year's TI index. Only Bangladesh, which can plead first time rating, ranks worse than Nigeria.

Daily Nigerian life corroborates the ranking. Nothing is considered off limits. Legislators, by confessions from their ranks, allegedly took bribes to institute impeachment proceedings against both the President and his foes in the leader- ship of the legislature including Senate President Pius Anyim and House Speaker Umar Na'Abba. They equally allegedly collected bribes to stay action. These are cash bribes, not constituency projects for which a parliamentarian in any civilized society might trade his vote.

Similarly, some officials of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) diverted monies meant for election-related legal work for themselves, although thanks to the chairman, retired judge Abel Guobadia, this is one case proving difficult to bury. Legislators - federal, state and local - take bribes to pass budgets and thereafter look away as the executives free-spend recur- rent and capital appropriations including those for water, health and roads, on any- thing but the approved items.

Also, in an apparent race to join globalisation, governments and companies are spending huge sums on information technology (IT), yet, more often than not, you can only reach officials through the free range of internet portal

A whole generation of Nigerians have grown up to see corruption which started in earnest following the oil price boom of the 1970s

Yahoo, because there is poor evidence of the IT expenses.

Most obscenely, with a few months to go, state governments especially are grabbing loans with both hands and feet, ignoring various outstanding poorly serviced borrowings from local and multilateral development banks. Lagos, for instance, is taking Nl5 bn in bonds which offer closed last October 30 and is repayable in 2005/2009.

Yet, the painful effects of corruption are everywhere as Nigeria decays. In both public and private sectors, once glittering and functional infrastructure - roads, buildings, electricity and telecoms systems - are now a mess, even as mega-sums are continuously claimed for their rehabilitation.

Paradoxically, even those on the gravy train hate the resultant decay. But rather than be moved to redress, they are fleeing or sprinting their children to better managed countries. This is in turn further driving up corruption because much more resources are required to finance an opulent lifestyle abroad.

President Obasanjo complains that he gets insufficient credit for his anti-corruption efforts, citing notably the institution in 2000 of an anti-corruption commission and' recovery' of some $ 1 bn from the family of late dictator Sani Abacha. The commission, however, is yet to publicly investigate and prosecute to conclusion any exemplary case.

Similarly, nothing has been recovered from Abacha's family because, say the relevant Swiss banks, an accord struck last year has lapsed due to the Nigerian government's legal inaction. Besides, the government's handling of the transfer of 49% of national carrier Nigeria Airways successor to Airwing Aerospace Limited, a nominal company incorporated in, at best, unclear circumstance in June 2002 with a paid-up capital of one British pound is uninspiring of confidence.

With so much cash in dubious hands, hopes of free and fair elections are ebbing. Come May 2004, the same old faces may return, to continue the same corrupt conduct.

The international community has to yet again rescue Nigeria's democracy, by isolating Obasanjo or whoever succeeds him until he produces a proven anti-corruption track record. In the meantime, if Obasanjo cannot deal with the log of corruption making nonsense of his government, he should have the good grace to stop bandying the Abacha loot 'recovery' about. Perhaps some day someone more determined will come along and sweep both the present and the past.

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