John Ifediora.

Time and again Nigerians are placed on notice that those who engage in corrupt practices, especially public officials found wanting in upholding the public trust that define their official capacity, would properly acquaint themselves with the services of a prison warden. Time served would be severe; the forfeiture of looted funds would be just as exacting. While progress has been made in this misnomer of the “fight against corruption,” looting by public officials in Nigeria remains unabated, and debilitating to the effort to place the nation’s economy on a positive growth trajectory. The problem so far is not the act of corruption per say but how the effort to curb it is framed and executed. The effort by the government in this front is akin to bringing knives to a gunfight; the ones with knives deserve to lose. Nigeria and other African countries that continue to declare war against corruption would continue to lose so long as they retain the current model of engagement.

The problem is not bureaucratic corruption, but rather the absence or inadequacies of social institutions necessary to curb it. By adequate social institutions I here make reference to the state of the country’s economic system, the presence of a mature and independent judiciary, the functionality of its educational system, the degree to which its laws are observed and enforced, and the national will to guard and implement democratic principles in its electoral process and governance. A country can only subdue bureaucratic corruption by strengthening these social institutions. Creating laws to fight corruption without these institutions firmly in place is as vacuous and ineffectual as going to a gunfight with knives. It is also foolish.

Ambassador John Campbell, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, gives an account of recent effort by President Buhari, in collaboration with the United States Department of Justice, and European governments to regain looted funds by Nigerian officials in an article entitled “Loot from the time of Sani Abacha repatriated to Nigeria,” John Campell:

Nigeria’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General Abubakar Malami said that Abuja has reached an agreement with a number of countries, including the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, for the repatriation of $500 million in looted public funds. This follows an earlier agreement with Switzerland for the return of $321 million allegedly stolen by the former military head of state, Sani Abachi. Though the attorney general provided no details, he said that “specific projects” have been identified to which the returned funds will be committed. After the Paris Club write-off in 2005 of an estimated $18 billion in debt, the Nigerian government identified projects to fund with the money freed up by the reduction in debt service, including the expansion of female education in the north. However, it is unclear how long the funding continued.

During his April 30 visit to Washington, DC, President Muhammadu Buhari publicly thanked President Donald Trump at their joint press conference for the administration’s assistance in the recovery of looted assets. He referred to the “machinery” the respective attorney generals had put in place for the return of some $500 million of looted assets “siphoned away in banks around the world.” Buhari also praised the U.S. Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Established in 2010, this initiative uses civil forfeiture proceedings to recover looted assets parked in, or laundered through, the United States. Notably, in 2017, the U.S. DOJ filed a civil complaint seeking the recovery of approximately $144 million allegedly laundered in the United States by two Nigerians associated with the former Minister of Petroleum Resources Diezani Alison-Madueke. President Buhari’s electoral victory owed much to his promises to fight against corruption. The next election in February 2019 and he is running for reelection. However, corruption in Nigeria is structural and addressing it will require decades, if not generations. In the run-up to the elections, Buhari will look to highlight examples where his policy has been successful in his first term.