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JURIST's Nigeria Correspondent is Yemi Akinseye-George, Acting Head and Senior Lecturer, Department of Public and International Law, University of Ibadan.
[Ibadan; Special to JURIST] For a very long time, corruption has been acknowledged as the single most important obstacle to economic progress and democracy in Nigeria. Manifested mainly in the form of bribery and embezzlement of public funds, the phenomenon contributed in no small measure to the destruction of the First Republic (1960 - 1966) and the Second Republic (1979 - 1983). In both cases, the military cited pervasive corruption as the justification for overthrowing the democratically elected government. Yet the military rulers themselves have not proven to be aboveboard. When they eventually returned political power to an elected government in May 1999, abundant evidence came to light that the military had taken corruption to its highest levels ever. Quite expectedly therefore, Nigeria has repeatedly topped the list of the most corrupt nations.

Unlike the past governments which merely 'talked about' fighting corruption, the Obasanjo administration seems determined to combat the phenomenon. Soon after its inauguration on 29 May 1999, the administration began to endorse measures which demonstrate the needed 'political will' to combat corruption. Apart from leading by example, the President has begun to privatize publicly owned corporations which served as major drainpipes for the nation's resources. Workers' wages have been reviewed and appropriately increased. More importantly however, the administration, working in conjunction with the National Assembly, has enacted anti-corruption legislation, known as the Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Act, 2000. Although, this is not the first time that a Nigerian government has attempted to legislate against corruption, the present attempt seems unique in many respects. An examination of the major provisions of the new Act will bear this out.

Simplification of Offences

Unlike the provisions of the existing criminal codes, the Corrupt Practices Act 2000 has simplified the definitions of corrupt practices. It has discarded the existing classification of offences into felonies, simple offences and misdemeanors. It also avoids the complicated classification of offences as indictable and non-indictable. The complicated existing law made it virtually impossible to secure a conviction for corruption.

Establishment of a Specialised Anti-Corruption Body

For the first time in the history of the Nation, the corrupt Practices Act 2000 establishes a statutory body answerable to the National Assembly, and whose main purpose is fighting corruption. Recognizing that corruption has become pervasive, the Act grants the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) considerable power of investigation, arrest and prosecution of suspected persons. The existing Code of Conduct Tribunal had become a toothless bulldog as it lacked the independence and power necessary to perform its oversight functions. However, an officer of the new anti-corruption commission, while investigating or prosecuting a case of corruption, shall have all the powers and immunities of a police officer.

Apart from investigating and prosecuting corruption cases, the Commission is empowered to eliminate corruption in public institutions with a view toward enlisting public support for the anti-corruption crusade. The Commission accomplishes this by devising efficient and transparent systems and procedures, and by educating the public on and against bribery, corruption and related offences. The Commission faces an uphill task in changing a public perception that accepts corruption as inevitable. The main battle against corruption must be fought and won in the minds of Nigerians before any success can be achieved in combating corruption in the public service.

Presumption of Corrupt Enrichment

The 2000 Act makes a presumption of corrupt enrichment against any public officer who owns, possesses or controls an excessive interest in any property, viewed in conjunction with his present or past emoluments and other relevant circumstances. Where such a public officer fails to satisfactorily explain such excess, he shall be presumed to have used his office corruptly to enrich or gratify himself and will be prosecuted accordingly. Upon conviction, the accused person faces a maximum term of five years imprisonment as well as forfeiture of the illegally acquired property.

Prohibition of Gifts to Public Officers

The Act prohibits the giving of gifts and other forms of gratification to a public officer. Its general provisions in this regard are similar to those already in existence.

Duty to Report Bribery Transactions

An innovative provision made by the Corrupt Practices Act 2000 imposes a duty on any public officer to whom gratification is given, promised, or offered in contravention of the law to report such gift or promise.

Applicability to the Private Sector

Although the new Act focuses mainly on the public sector, its provisions are also applicable to the private sector. Several of its provisions make reference to "any person" rather than "any public officer." This is certainly an improvement upon the existing provisions of the criminal codes, which were of little relevance to the private sector.

Protection of Informers

Recognizing that 'whistle blowers' are often the target of harassment, the Act provides for the protection of persons reporting corrupt practices. The identity of such informers shall not be disclosed by the commission or ordered to be disclosed in public by any court of law.

Independent Counsel to investigate the President and other high political office holders

An important provision in the Act authorizes the Chief Justice of the Federation to appoint an independent counsel to investigate allegations of corruption leveled against the president, vice president, state governor or deputy governor. That notwithstanding, the Constitution grants these officers immunity against prosecution while in office. The report of the Independent Counsel can only form a basis for impeachment proceedings by the Legislature.

Power over cross-border offences

The Commission is empowered to engage the services of INTERPOL or such local or international institutions possessing special knowledge or skill in the tracing of properties connected with cross-border crimes.

Problems and Prospects

The major problem likely to be encountered by the Commission depends on the unreliability of the Nigerian Police, with whom it is expected to work closely. Many observers have therefore argued that unless the Police are reformed, they might hinder the effectiveness of the anti-corruption crusade.

There is also the problem of inadequate resources. Unless the government is willing to commit adequate resources to fund and operate the Commission, it might not be able to withstand the opposing forces of the corrupt elements in the society. Consequently, it might be necessary for the Commission to seek ways of generating independent financing such as through international donors and aid providers.

One certain thing is that the battle against corruption in Nigeria will not be an easy one. It is however worth the while if Nigeria's nascent democracy and attempts at economic reform are to be sustained.

Yemi Akinseye-George
JURIST Nigeria Correspondent
Department of Public and International Law,
University of Ibadan

November 3, 2000

Yemi Akinseye-George's most recent book is Legal System, Corruption and Governance in Nigeria; interested readers should contact Mr. Akinseye-George by e-mail. 覧覧覧覧覧覧覧覧覧覧覧

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