Corruption in Nigeria

Wednesday, June 1, 2005; Washington Post,  Page A18 ELECTED TO a second term in 2003, Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has promised to clean up corruption. He has shown some signs of seriousness: Investigations have triggered the sacking of two government ministers, the arrest of a former police chief and the resignation of the Senate president. But the key test of Mr. Obasanjo's commitment is oil. Nigeria pumps 3 percent of the world's crude, and oil is the source of the cronyism that has suffocated Nigerian development since independence.

In the oil sphere Mr. Obasanjo has made the right noises. Last year Nigeria was one of four African countries to sign up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, an international effort to promote the publication of payments oil and mining firms make to governments. The government has appointed a Western audit firm to certify that its oil accounts are accurate; the hope is that published revenue that can be monitored by advocacy groups and the media will not be diverted into ministers' pockets. Nigerians even suggest that their new openness will serve as a model for Africa's burgeoning oil sector. "I rejoice greatly that Nigeria is and will continue to be at the forefront of the continent's new transparent dawn," Mr. Obasanjo declared in February 2004. The quote is displayed prominently on the transparency initiative's Web site.

Recently, however, the dawn has been looking a bit bleak. Some of Nigeria's oil fields are shared with the tiny nation of Sao Tome and Principe, and the allocation of exploration rights there smells bad. According to a Nigerian press report, a firm run by a politically connected Nigerian seems favored to win an auction over a U.S. contender that bid substantially more; several other bidders appear to stand out for their links to the government rather than for their knowledge of geology or engineering. The first payment generated by this auction process has been made into a Nigerian bank controlled (again, according to a Nigerian press report) by the family of the recently sacked Senate president, a move that violated the anti-corruption best practice of depositing it in an international bank. Despite promises of transparency, an exploration contract with Chevron and Exxon Mobil so far has not been published. The plan seems to be to release part of it, eventually.

Sao Tome's government has protested the conduct of the bidding process and demanded a fresh auction. But it's not clear whether Mr. Obasanjo will listen. The president inserted himself directly into the argument this month by visiting Sao Tome; according to one account, his message to his counterpart was to allow the flawed auction to stand. Mr. Obasanjo is no doubt under considerable pressure from corrupt elites at home. But if he wants to change Nigeria's dismal development record, he should live up to his fine rhetoric.