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In Nigeria, Where Money Talks, Reform Is the Word

Corruption has grown so severe that many here fear it has become a deterrent to investors and, worse still, a reason for international leaders not to forgive Nigeria's crushing foreign debt of $35 billion.

In an address to the nation in March, Obasanjo warned that corruption "contaminates collective morality and values" and tarnishes the image of Nigeria in the eyes of the world. "This is a warning to all those who have tendencies to be corrupt," he said. "This administration is fully poised to deal ruthlessly with corruption in all its ramifications."

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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Many Nigerians dismiss Obasanjo's anti-corruption campaign as an elaborate form of public relations to win concessions from lenders and burnish the president's reputation as a world leader. Critics note that only now, six years after Obasanjo first won office promising to crack down on corruption, are any major figures being brought to justice, and none has gone to jail.

Political opponents also contend that the president's election victories in 1999 and 2003 were so brazenly rigged that he lacks the moral authority to attack corruption.

"It is still too early to start clapping," said Ibrahim Modibbo, spokesman for the main opposition party here, the All Nigeria People's Party. "We strongly believe the whole thing is a smoke screen."

Efforts to stem corruption began making headlines in August 2003 when Nasir Ahmad el-Rufa'i, who had just been named to a ministerial post overseeing the capital region, announced that two senators had asked him for bribes to facilitate his confirmation. According to el-Rufa'i, one of the two senators told him he needed 55 votes, which would cost him 54 million naira, or roughly $415 -- 1 million naira each for 54 senators but nothing for himself. He was such an admirer of the nominee, he said, that his vote was free.

Both men named by el-Rufa'i have denied his allegations and been cleared of wrongdoing by a legislative committee. El-Rufa'i won confirmation anyway, and he has since become an outspoken symbol and advocate of the anti-corruption campaign.

In a recent interview, el-Rufa'i estimated that at least three out of every four lawmakers are corrupt, as are more than half of the nation's governors and many of its civil servants. Most of the cabinet ministers and the nation's top judges are clean, he said, but in the lower levels of the judiciary, bribery is more common.

He maintained, however, that Nigeria is beginning to change, if only because corrupt government officials have begun to fear that they might get caught -- and punished.

"We are moving away from a culture of impunity, where people felt they could be corrupt and get away with it, to the point where people are scared of being corrupt," el-Rufa'i said. "If a few more ministers go to jail, if a few more members of the National Assembly go to jail, believe me, people will line up and do the right thing."

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