Deconstructing Nigerian Corruption

7 MINS READOct 11, 2016 | 09:15 GMT
To effectively fight the endemic corruption in his country, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (C) will have to overcome political opposition from the entrenched interests that profit from it.
To effectively fight the endemic corruption in his country, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (C) will have to overcome political opposition from the entrenched interests that profit from it.
Forecast Highlights

  • If corruption were left unaddressed, some estimates suggest it could cost Nigeria more than 37 percent of its GDP by 2030.
  • Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has launched a war against corruption but fears that he is arrogating power and that the country's slow judicial process will limit his success.
  • Even if Buhari can overcome these obstacles, the underlying structural factors that give rise to Nigeria's endemic corruption will not change.


Corruption is sapping the Nigerian state. Some estimates say the country has lost hundreds of billions of dollars to graft since its independence from Britain in 1960. If left unaddressed, corruption could cost the country an amount equal to more than 37 percent of gross domestic product by 2030, estimates by London-based accounting firm PwC show.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made tackling corruption a focus of his administration since taking office in May 2015. Gauging his chances of success requires examining his country's geopolitical landscape and his two rises to power.

Fragmentation Breeds Corruption

Nigeria is a fragmented state. Its roughly 175 million people are divided into three major ethnic groups (Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba), hundreds of ethnic subgroups and three major religions (animism, Christianity and Islam). In addition to these divisions are untold regional conflicts.

All of these fault lines have shaped the development of Nigeria, including the prevalence of corruption. Countries that are more difficult to govern, whether because of challenging terrain or ethnic divisions, are more likely to develop a culture of bribery. Simply put, leaders have an easier time governing varied ethnic landscapes if they buy loyalty. Though other factors — including cultural norms, weak institutions and abusive rule — can lead to and reinforce endemic corruption, state fragmentation is the underlying basis.

By 1983, when the Nigerian military ousted the civilian government amid an economic decline and Buhari first became president, the public had generally come to see the civilian government as woefully corrupt and incompetent. Given his unorthodox route to the presidency, Buhari needed to quickly establish his credentials as a national leader. One way to do so was to distinguish himself from his corrupt predecessors. Buhari did in fact target corruption during his administration, though some accused him of letting his fellow northerners off more lightly than their southern counterparts.

Buhari's administration, however, seemed to ignore rising resentments among the military, political establishment and broader Nigerian public (fed especially by ongoing economic weakness), eventually leading to his overthrow as military head of state. From 1985 to 1993, his successor, Ibrahim Babangida, led what came to be considered one of the most corrupt governments in Nigerian history.

By 2015, Nigeria was enduring another round of economic difficulties and was being led by an administration under President Goodluck Jonathan generally understood to be corrupt even by Nigerian standards. Much had changed since 1983: Most significantly, the country had transitioned back to civilian rule in 1999. A key part of the new civilian political system was a rotational power-sharing agreement engineered by the then-ruling People's Democratic Party. Under the agreement, each of what Nigerian leaders call the country's "geopolitical zones" would have a stake in power, ensuring that no one region or ethnicity monopolized power. The country's successive administrations have been more or less inclusive since the deal went into effect.

The geopolitical zone deal, however, has not resulted in the strengthening of Nigerian political institutions, which remain feeble and prone to domination by whoever holds the presidency. This became apparent under Jonathan, who as vice president assumed the presidency in 2010 following the death of Umaru Yaradua, the sitting president. Even though it was not his zone's "turn" for the presidency, Jonathan ran for and won re-election in 2011. But bypassing the zone agreement diminished his legitimacy, making him less able to resist powerful elements in his administration.

This plus Nigeria's fractured nature, its weak institutions, the financial windfall from the oil boom in the late 2000s and Jonathan's reliance on patronage networks to keep supporters happy led to the raiding of government coffers on an epic scale during his administration. Tens of billions of dollars are thought to have been stolen. But when oil prices plunged, the amount of money that could be pilfered diminished. And as Nigerians began to feel the pinch of an economic downturn, tolerance for flagrant corruption at the top dropped.

Jonathan's attempt to win an additional term was sufficiently polarizing that new political realignments emerged. Soon, members of the ruling People's Democratic Party began switching their allegiances to the All Progressives Congress, led by Buhari, who had decided to seek the presidency. One of Buhari's three main campaign planks was fighting corruption.

Buhari vs. Corruption, Round Two

Since retaking office, Buhari has directed Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to launch dozens of investigations into questionable dealings by members of the previous government. Some have resulted in high-profile arrests. Former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki was charged with awarding fake defense contracts and stealing $2 billion. The commission has also seized jewelry worth several million dollars from former Minister of Petroleum Resources Diezani Alison-Madueke, who faces charges related to the disappearance of over $20 billion in oil proceeds from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. Future investigations might include looking into the $15 million held in bank accounts by Patience Jonathan, the wife of the previous president, which she has said are for "medical expenses."

Buhari's anti-corruption moves have proved politically popular, allowing him to uphold his campaign promises while weakening his opponents. But his anti-corruption initiatives carry risks, one of which is that they might end the traditional practice of providing payoffs to buy peace in the restive, oil-producing Niger Delta, potentially sparking renewed attacks on the region's oil and natural gas infrastructure.

In addition, Buhari has complained that "slow judges and lawyers" have hampered his efforts. Though some critics would be quick to point out that an independent judiciary provides necessary safeguards against excessive executive power, by most measures, Nigeria's bureaucracy is notoriously slow. If Buhari is serious about cracking down on corruption, he will need to streamline his initiatives from the current dozen Nigerian agencies that play roles in the effort. The Nigerian president has said his anti-corruption drive will "outlive his administration," but for that to happen, he will need to create new mechanisms to carry it out. Dasuki's arrest serves as an example of the country's institutional weakness. After his detention by Nigeria's State Security Service in November 2015, Dasuki posted bail, but the domestic intelligence agency continued to hold him, violating his right to due process. In early October, a court from the Economic Community of West African States demanded his release, citing arbitrary detention.

Resistance to Buhari's moves are based partly on Nigeria's political history — which provides plenty of reasons to be wary of power grabs — even ones couched as part of an anti-corruption campaign. The Nigerian president has alarmed some observers by working to pass a Special Crimes Court Bill, a measure currently under review by the Nigerian Senate. If passed, it would create a parallel judicial system for crimes related to corruption. By bypassing the country's slow-moving judiciary, more successful prosecutions could presumably be obtained. But it could just as well provoke accusations that Buhari is seizing more power for himself and his advisers.

Nigeria's entrenched interests, which benefit handsomely from the weakness of the country's institutions and the corresponding opportunities for graft, will also hold him back. Cutting these figures off from their sources of largesse will not automatically trigger a coup, as it might have in the past. But it could create the conditions for Buhari's defeat in the next presidential election by motivating powerful opponents to line up against him. Early indications suggest such political realignments are already afoot

But even if Buhari somehow managed to overcome resistance to his anti-corruption campaign based on fears of authoritarianism and of losing patronage, the underlying structural factors that gave rise to Nigeria's endemic corruption will not change. Its fragmented ethnic geography, weak institutions and history of authoritarian rule will limit Buhari's ability to quash corruption — and the ability of future presidents to do so, assuming his moves in fact "live past his administration."

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