When Nigeria's first civilian government in 15 years takes office Saturday, its most pressing task will be to grapple with the economic and political crises seizing Africa's most populous nation. But intellectuals and foreign analysts worry about how empty the new government will find its bank accounts following a spending spree by the departing military rulers.
The outgoing administration of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar has won global applause for leading Nigeria back to elected government a year after taking power upon the death of a corrupt dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha.
Yet Abubakar's military government has drained the country's foreign currency reserves by perhaps $3 billion in what business sources and the Nigerian press say was a burst of corrupt spending for the profit of senior officers and their business partners. The government says it has spent the money on essential projects or to fill the financial gap caused by low oil revenues.
In any case, the spending deepens the financial hole from which the new government of President-elect Olusegun Obasanjo will have to dig itself.
It also raises stakes for the United States and other Western nations that are negotiating, through the International Monetary Fund, the terms on which they will lend Obasanjo's government money to help stabilize the country. U.S. and African leaders stress that Nigeria's continued transition toward democracy is essential to improving stability and economic development throughout much of Africa.
In January, Abubakar announced a painfully tight budget, noting low world prices for crude oil, sales of which supply about 80 percent of Nigeria's government revenue. All officials, he said, "must ensure that expenditures are incurred for only essential purposes." Abubakar's government signed an agreement with the IMF to limit spending as a first step to getting IMF loans.
But Abubakar either proved unable to control the demands of military officers for financial favors or backed away from insisting on tight spending and accountability, Western diplomats and Nigerian analysts said. In March, Nigeria's state-owned oil company -- which was controlled by the military's ruling council -- allocated 11 oil exploration licenses without seeking competitive bids that would have brought the state a fair market price.
The 11 licenses, for geologically attractive areas near existing oil fields, went to Nigerian companies linked to senior military officers or former Abacha business associates, according to government and oil industry sources quoted by Nigerian journalists and a London-based newsletter, Africa Confidential.
One firm, Amni International, is run by Sani Bello, whose son is married to Abubakar's daughter, the newsletter reported. Others linked to the winning bids included the government's second-ranking officer, Adm. Mike Akhigbe; the chief of defense staff, Air Marshal Alamin Daggash; the chief of army staff, Gen. Ishaya Bamaiyi; former Abacha business partners Jack and Gilbert Chagoury; and Abacha's ex-oil minister, Dan Etete.
Officials denied parts of the reported deals. Last week, Information Minister John Nwodo declared that "Air Marshal Daggash disassociates himself" from Anchorage Petroleum, the company to which he had been linked in press reports. To buttress the denial, Nwodo declared that the company was not even registered with the appropriate authorities, leaving it unclear how it won the license in the first place.
Nwodo also said Akhigbe and Bamaiyi had issued denials.
Government ministries also have pressed for allocations beyond the budget -- often for construction or other services by companies linked to influential military officers or their business.
Last month, Finance Minister Ismaila Usman told donor countries that Nigeria's foreign reserves had dropped from $6.7 billion to $4 billion during the first quarter of 1999. And government officials leaked details of the spending to the Nigerian and British press.
One leaked document was a list of about 50 projects -- costing more than $600 million overall -- approved in a ministerial meeting April 22. From that list, the weekly Newswatch noted an allocation of about $73 million to continue construction of a government-owned aluminum smelter -- regarded as a white elephant by foreign economists -- whose agreed price had suddenly doubled without explanation several years ago under Abacha.
The April 22 list included almost $50 million to finish hundreds of official homes in Abuja for government ministers, civil servants and legislators, plus $33 million to finish a terminal at Abuja's airport.
"It's uncertain how much of the money" appropriated April 22 has actually been spent, said a business analyst in Lagos, Nigeria's financial center. "We may not find that out until Obasanjo's people get in and actually see the books."
Abubakar protested suggestions that his administration has been broadly corrupt. "It is very much unfair for somebody to . . . accuse this administration of looting the treasury," he said. "Everything we have done is there for anybody to see. . . . Anybody can go into the records . . . and see where we have spent the money."