Buhari’s fight against corruption

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Buhari’s fight against corruption

President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in the 2015 elections on the back of two key messages: improving the security environment and reviving the fight against corruption. On the latter, at least, he can point to some progress. His administration has worked more closely with the US, the UK, and various Middle Eastern countries to seize and repatriate assets from public officials that are suspected to have been purchased with illicit funds. Nigeria’s leading anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), has also become more active. It has launched a series of investigations into former high-ranking public officials from previous administrations, in particular former cabinet officials, state governors and senior civil servants. 

However, just months before voters return to the polls in February 2019, public perceptions of Buhari’s anti-corruption drive remain poor. Despite a number of high-profile prosecutions in the early days of the Buhari administration, investigations have seldom led to significant convictions. And the recent convictions of two former governors, Jolly Nyame and Joshua Dariye, have failed to convince the public of any improvement. The slow pace of court cases, and financial settlements made by wealthy individuals and entities outside of the courtroom have also impeded successful prosecutions. Meanwhile, observers routinely question whether the EFCC has the resources or capacity to successfully prosecute a large number of complex fraud cases. Corruption in the judicial system and challenges in securing sufficient evidence have also impeded prosecutions. The opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) will look to exploit these failures and the resultant popular disaffection during its campaign.

Politicised anti-corruption effort?

Buhari’s critics, both within his ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the PDP, claim that he is using anti-corruption efforts to target political opponents. For example, the EFCC in July declared that it had “dusted off” a fraud case against outgoing Ekiti Governor Ayo Fayose of the PDP. The announcement came just hours after Fayose’s defeat in the Ekiti state gubernatorial polls, which will see him lose political immunity when he leaves office in mid-October. Fayose is one of the most outspoken critics of the Buhari administration,

Meanwhile, a number of APC political figures have defected to the PDP in recent months, only to see EFCC investigations launched against them. For example, the defection in July of Benue state Governor Samuel Ortom from the APC to the PDP was promptly followed by EFCC investigations into his alleged involvement in the diversion of state funds. Anecdotal evidence suggests that politicians who defected from the PDP to the APC have faced less pressure from anti-corruption agencies. 

Buhari is keen to showcase his anti-graft credentials ahead of the polls, and the potential for asset seizures targeting PDP members in relation to corruption allegations could strain the opposition party’s campaign coffers. More importantly for Buhari’s re-election bid, fear of corruption charges could help to prevent disgruntled members of the ruling party from switching allegiances. Rival political groups will also use sometimes spurious corruption charges to discredit each other ahead of the polls.

Business implications

Buhari will come under increasing pressure to secure convictions ahead of the 2019 elections to convince voters of his hard line on corruption. However, comprehensive reforms aimed at ensuring greater transparency are unlikely to materialise any time soon. EFCC investigators will continue to scrutinise deals between businesses and the government during the PDP’s 16-year administration. As a result, companies involved in transactions under the former PDP government should be prepared for attention from the authorities. The risk of regulatory action resulting in significant fines and reputational damage has increased under the Buhari administration, and this risk will persist in the run-up to the elections. 

Some companies might also find themselves accused of corrupt or non-compliant practices as part of the administration’s attempt to demonstrate its anti-graft credentials to voters ahead of the polls. Action against prominent politicians and government officials remains more likely than the annulment of contracts and action against businesses. Nonetheless, company officials should be wary of the potential for investigations focusing on the activities of individual employees.

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