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In Nigeria, Where Money Talks, Reform Is the Word

President Begins to Crack Down on a Culture of Corruption; Series of Senior Officials Forced Out

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 1, 2005; Page A18

ABUJA, Nigeria -- Police call it "a kola nut." Journalists call it "the brown envelope." And politicians call it "a welfare package." Whatever the name, the almighty bribe long has lubricated Nigerian society as it has few others on Earth.

Corruption is so rampant that when the nation's education minister, Fabian Osuji, was caught giving $400,000 to Nigerian lawmakers for favorable votes, he formally protested that such behavior was "common knowledge and practice at all levels of government." Besides, Osuji added, he had struck a good deal; the lawmakers had asked for twice as much. He was fired from the government.


A man walks under a picture of Tafa Balogun, head of police, who stepped down after being accused of graft. (George Osodi -- AP)

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Now, after decades of open and freewheeling graft, President Olusegun Obasanjo has declared war on corruption. And Osuji is far from alone in suddenly having to account for his actions.

A succession of senior government figures -- including the top police official, the housing minister and the Senate president -- also have been pushed from their jobs in recent months and threatened with jail for offenses that once would have earned them little more than a wink.

The police official, Tafa Balogun, even appeared in court wearing handcuffs. And in separate action, a court in Abuja, the capital, has ruled that the son of late dictator Sani Abacha must stand trial for his alleged role in the looting of more than $1 billion in public funds during his father's reign from 1993 to 1998.

Obasanjo and his allies portray the anti-corruption campaign as nothing less than a battle to redeem the tainted soul of a nation, the largest in Africa with about 137 million people. Even the Catholic Mass here includes a prayer against corruption.

"We are trying to change Nigeria," said Mustapha Akanbi, a stern retired judge who heads one of two independent anti-corruption commissions and who, on his desk, has a paper clip dispenser that says: "Don't Give Bribe, Don't Take Bribe."

Akanbi said he tells his roughly 150 investigators and prosecutors that "they are engaged in a struggle, in a revolution for their country. We are trying to teach people to give up their greed and corruption and put service to the nation first."

Transparency International, a corruption monitoring group based in Berlin, ranks Nigeria as the third-most-corrupt nation on Earth -- a fact that has prompted some here to joke that a clever government official must have paid a hefty bribe to keep the group from ranking Nigeria first or second. Only Bangladesh and Haiti were rated more corrupt.

Navigating the most basic government services, such as getting freight through customs, often requires a bribe in Nigeria. Motorists have little choice but to pay police officers -- many armed with automatic rifles -- who set up impromptu roadblocks to demand a "kola nut." The caffeine-laden nut is a traditional offering of hospitality in Nigeria, but to police the term refers to a wad of money worth anywhere from a few cents to several dollars, depending on the type of vehicle and the mood of the officer.

Politicians take bribes and give them, including payments to reporters who can make more money from those they cover than from their meager newspaper paychecks, according to journalists familiar with the practice.

For the high-stakes deals between politicians, the preferred packages are known as "Ghana-Must-Go bags." The satchels, made of colorful woven plastic, were commonly used as suitcases in the 1980s, when the government was pressuring immigrants from nearby Ghana to return home. Filled, a Ghana-Must-Go bag can hold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of naira, the Nigerian currency.

It was such a bag, according to news reports here, that the education minister used in December to send a "welfare package" to the home of the Senate president. "I protested this demand," Osuji told an ethics committee, "but the Senate president sternly told me to go back to my ministry and find the money."

Many here trace the root of corruption to the decades of military governments that ruled Nigeria before Obasanjo's election in 1999. The treasury, flush with money from some of the world's most productive oil fields, became a personal bank account for a succession of generals. The rot oozed down to lawmakers, governors and judges, say Nigerian officials. Civil servants, who in some cases went months or years without receiving their salaries, collected what they could by selling their services.


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