Buhari to the rescue: Tackling corruption in Africa’s largest economy

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent…”

Perhaps reminiscent of the “Winds of Change” (the speech delivered in 1960 by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town), the recent address given by new Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari at the United Nations represents a political milestone in seeking to eradicate corruption in Africa.

The omnipresent malaise of corruption: Buhari to the rescue?

Were $150 billion ‘stolen’ under aegis of President Jonathan?  Having previously attacked his predecessor’s regime from 2010-15, claiming it embezzled this staggering amount from the Nigerian state coffers and the private sector, Buhari already had made his anti-corruption stance a key component of his campaign against Jonathan.  For instance, back in 2011, he “urged President Jonathan to focus on tackling corruption in government instead of removing fuel subsidies.”

During his 2014 campaign, he lamented in his so-called “2015 Manifesto” that “[a]s a nation, we are paralyzed by … endemic institutionalised corruption,” speaks of “hyper-corruption,” and proposes as its solution that: “I, Muhammadu Buhari have now come to the rescue. This is success by design. It will overcome our failure by design matrix.”  Moreover, his 4th campaign promise has been to “Prevent the abuse and misuse of Executive, Legislative and Public offices, through greater accountability, transparency, strict, and implementable anti-corruption laws, through strengthening and sanitising the EFCC and ICPC as independent entities.”

More recently, the President had a slightly more sober message to deliver to the General Assembly in New York City, yet still zeroing in on the same target, namely corruption:

“Let me reaffirm the Nigerian government’s unwavering commitment to fight corruption and illicit financial flows. By any consideration, corruption and cross-border financial crimes are impediments to development, economic growth, and the realisation of the well-being of citizens across the globe.

“Nigeria is ready and willing to partner with international agencies and individual countries on a bilateral basis to confront crimes and corruption.”

Winds of Change?

Buhari took office only in June 2015, but is far from new to politics in Africa’s largest economy — he was Nigeria’s military ruler in the 1980s, was a former Minister for the key portfolio of Petroleum & Natural Resources, and has concomitantly extensive political and strategic leadership experience under his belt.  For him to have chosen the fight against corruption in Nigeria as a key topic in his U.N. speech foreshadows a major initiative, we believe.

Pr1merio co-founding partner, Andreas Stargard, likewise perceives President Buhari’s message to be an important one, especially for international businesses with Nigerian ties:

“Several African, and in particular West African, countries have historically been seen as far too lax on effectively countering corruption and bribery.  This can often have one of two results for international businesses, neither of which is good for the affected African economies, coincidentally: (1) either the foreign corporation weighs the risks and chooses to avoid Africa for fear of involvement in bribery and resulting liability risk, or (2) it actually decides to participate in the corrupt conduct and seeks to benefit from it, paying scant attention to local anti-corruption legislation, and risking FCPA-like prosecutions in its home country.”

Whether or not Buhari’s pronouncements in international diplomacy will have an actual and measurable impact in the short or even medium term remains to be seen.  Bayo Adaralegbe, also a Primerio advisor, agrees that President Buhari’s speech at the U.N. does heralds potential key turn-around point in West-African anti-corruption efforts.  Adaralegbe notes that, unlike his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, President Buhari is intent on fulfilling his election promises.  Buhari added in his address to the United Nations that:

“In particular, I call upon the global community to urgently redouble efforts towards strengthening the mechanisms for dismantling safe havens for proceeds of corruption and ensuring the return of stolen funds and assets to their countries of origin.”

As recently reported by AAF (e.g., “Just a math issue”: Anti-Corruption Efforts in Kenya take Center-Stage for Obama), many recent African administrations have attempted to bolster — or at least undertake public-relations efforts on behalf of — their enforcement efforts, particularly in recovering funds stolen by previous administrations.  Buhari’s statements are not different in this regard.  

It is of course difficult to gauge whether the messages above will result in substantial enforcement action.  That said, for many doing business in the region it is noteworthy that the message in fact comes from the top, i.e. the sitting President of Africa’s single-largest economy…

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