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Is Nigeria turning around its anti-corruption enforcement?

Matthew T. Page


Nigeria’s anti-corruption law enforcement efforts are gradually growing more effective as practitioners adapt and innovate in response to many persistent challenges. Sometimes caricatured as sclerotic, politicized, or error-prone, high-level anti-corruption efforts are becoming noticeably more innovative and pragmatic.

Instead of being abandoned under pressure or resulting in decade-long, quixotic prosecutions, high-profile corruption cases increasingly involve new, more effective resolutions. These include plea bargains and asset forfeiture as well as probationary and non-custodial sentences. In instances where political stakes are high, and the likelihood of successful criminal prosecution is low, these tools are now seen as faster, more straightforward, and more viable than traditional criminal prosecutions.

These conclusions stem from new research conducted by a University of Edinburgh-led team participating in Global Integrity’s Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE) program. Here are some preliminary findings from the team’s Nigeria-focused research:

  • The prosecution of high-level corruption cases in Nigeria has progressed somewhat in recent years, yet many shortfalls and obstacles to additional progress remain. Key legislative reforms, as well as innovations and pragmatic adaptations undertaken by prosecutors and investigators, underpinned much of this progress.

  • Strategic patience — anti-corruption practitioners’ ability to build stronger cases, avoid pitfalls, resist outside influences, and wait until high-level suspects are no longer untouchable — lead to more successful prosecutorial outcomes.

  • The politicization of anti-corruption prosecutions is a double-edged sword. While powerful high-level suspects are often untouchable, they can suddenly become vulnerable when political winds invariably shift. This creates opportunities for anti-corruption agencies to maximize the effectiveness of their prosecutions.

  • Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies must strike a stronger, more sustainable balance in their high-level corruption investigations, continuing to pursue “easy wins” like non-conviction-based asset forfeitures while also selectively attempting riskier prosecutions that aim to secure convictions.

  • Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies still require several legislative fixes, increased budgetary support, and more constructive and independent oversight in order to function more effectively.

  • The country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is a robust and effective agency but has tough choices to make about its future direction, especially how it manages organizational growth and resists political influence.

  • The EFCC’s sister agencies — the Independent Corruption Practices and Other Related Offense Commission (ICPC) and the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) — possess significant untapped potential that could be energized by simple legislative fixes, sustained investment, and modest reforms.

Policy Recommendations

Seeking to be policy-relevant, this research points toward several feasible recommendations that Nigerian decision-makers, international policymakers, and other key stakeholders can act upon.

These include suggesting that President Muhammadu Buhari — who has three more years left in his presidential term — take concrete steps to foster greater judicial independence by institutionalizing real financial autonomy for the judiciary. The judiciary currently depends on disbursements that are often unduly delayed by the executive branch.

President Buhari also needs to institute and enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward executive branch interference with the courts, as well as commit to reining in those officials who interfere or exert undue pressure on anti-corruption agencies. Like with the courts, he needs to ensure funds budgeted to anti-corruption agencies are released in a timely way.

The President should also demand that anti-corruption agencies develop strategic, capacity-building spending plans and demonstrate greater transparency with regard to their budgets and expenditures. He also must appoint more respected technocrats, jurists, and civil society figures to serve on the boards of the anti-corruption agencies and reduce the de facto control board members have over staffing and operational decisions.

For its part, the National Assembly — Nigeria’s federal legislature — should sit down with the EFCC, ICPC, and CCB with the aim of undertaking long-overdue legislative fixes and improvements to their establishing acts and other key laws that they routinely use to prosecute cases. Legislators should, for example, pass laws that enable anti-corruption agencies to better handle emerging challenges such as cryptocurrencies and witness protection.

Nigeria’s main anti-corruption agencies — the EFCC, ICPC, and CCB — should increase transparency as well as intensify collaboration and information sharing with other government agencies and non-governmental partners. They must also work to improve case management and professionalize prosecutors to ensure that the agency prosecutes a more limited number of cases to a higher standard.

The EFCC, in particular, should be careful to avoid “mission creep” and maintain its focus on agency resources on high-level corruption investigations and prosecutions. This should include relinquishing secondary mandates—particularly investigating and prosecuting cybercrime cases — by transferring all but a few of the most complex cases to the police.

The international community — particularly the United States, UK, and EU — need to reinvigorate their financial and technical assistance to Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies and its judiciary, elevating it back to levels seen in the early 2000s. Perhaps more importantly, however, these countries need to take a tough look at how their own policies — and policy failures — that make Nigerian anti-corruption efforts more difficult. For example, Western policymakers need to ask why politically-exposed Nigerians suspected of corrupt practices enjoy near-total freedom to spend their unexplained wealth on high-end property, private schools, and luxury goods in the United States, UK, and Europe.

With this research and set of recommendations in hand, the University of Edinburgh-led research team is confident that they can positively influence narratives surrounding anti-corruption law enforcement in Nigeria. By looking at evidence of what is actually happening — rather than relying on apocryphal accounts or worn-out stereotypes — policymakers, practitioners, civil society and international partners can work together more effectively to support effective anti-corruption law enforcement practice in Nigeria.

This article originally in The FCPA Blog on May 19, 2020

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