Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Transparency alone can't curb corruption

Chatham House hosted two talks last week dealing with corruption in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Corruption has blighted both these countries, occurring on a colossal scale in Nigeria and directly helping to cause Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s.

Abdul Tejan-Cole, Sierra Leone’s anti-corruption commissioner, spoke first, on Tuesday. Then on Friday a discussion marked the launch of a Chatham House report on Nigeria’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI). While the former struck a positive note, the report on NEITI, which initially was hailed a success, shows just how hard it is to combat entrenched political interests.

Tejan-Cole, a charismatic speaker, covered a lot of ground during his short talk with the confidence of a man on top of his brief. Transparency International figures show an improvement for Sierra Leone during Tejan-Cole’s two-year tenure, albeit from an extremely low base. The country rose 12 rankings in TI’s corruption perception index from 158 in the world in 2008 to 146 in 2009.

Appointed in 2007 by President Ernest Bai Koroma to shake up the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC), an increase in prosecutions seems to have restored some of the credibility the institution previously lacked. A law passed in 2008 has given the ACC more teeth, allowing it to prosecute cases bypassing the attorney general, a political office-holder. But Tejan-Cole emphasises that prosecution is just one of three prongs in Sierra Leone’s anti-corruption struggle, alongside education and prevention.

“There is a perception in Sierra Leone that the fight against corruption is only the job of the ACC,” he said at the Chatham House talk. “The fight against corruption has to be everybody’s business. All of us need to be engaged fully in the fight against corruption; the ACC can only provide the leadership that is required to fight corruption.”

Under Tejan Cole the ACC has focussed on the commission’s internal procedures, creating codes of conduct and other mechanisms for increasing transparency. It has worked with other government bodies to do this for them too, for instance cutting down the number of bank accounts associated with the Ministry of Health from 77 to a more manageable seven, and having them report to the Treasury.

But transparency on its own cannot dent corruption. That is a conclusion that may be drawn from reading “Nigeria’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative: Just a Glorious Audit?”, Nicholas Shaxson’s report for Chatham House on the initiative that aimed to foster better governance by providing a comprehensive audit of the Nigerian oil industry’s financial flows. NEITI succeeded in the latter objective – its 1999-2004 audits were a “shining success” that led it to become a flagship programme in the global Extractive Industries Transparancy Initiative – but this success did not lead to governance reforms, nor did the results of the audit permeate civil society groups at large, Shaxson concludes.

Shaxson argues that NEITI did not drive of reform but rather was part of a broader reform movement led by a cabal of people close to, and supported by, then President Olusegun Obasanjo – a complex character who wanted a place in history as a reformer, yet was a venal ruler himself. Obasanjo’s unsuccessful bid to change the constitution so he could stand for a third term, and the political manoeuvres necessary to gain support, eventually subsumed his patronage of the reformers.

Tejan-Cole describes politics in Sierra Leone as his biggest obstacle, and there is an echo of this in the cautionary tale of one of Nigeria’s reformers, the former anti-corruption commissioner Nuhu Ribadu. At the launch of the FIX Nigeria Initiative in October 2006 – a campaign to involve civil society in the country’s anti-corruption battle – Ribadu spoke with zeal similar to Tejan-Cole’s, touching the same themes of education and prevention. Earlier that month he rocked Nigeria’s political establishment by revealing he was investigating 31 of the country’s 36 governors for corruption. But Ribadu lost his job after Umaru Yar’Adua succeeded Obasanjo in 2007, backed by some of the governors Ribadu had pursued. Ironically, the reputation for probity that helped Yar’Adua secure the ruling party’s presidential nomination was partly down to him being one of the five governors that Ribadu wasn’t investigating.

Ribadu eventually left Nigeria for a position at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, after assassination attempts against him back home. NEITI faded into obscurity as the old president’s focus switched elsewhere. The new president prioritised a different approach focussing on the Oil Industry Reform Bill, yet progress remains elusive in Nigeria’s fight against corruption. Sierra Leoneans should hope their country follows the example of Liberia, perceived to have taken giant strides under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – and where the EITI initiative has received wide praise. However, few will have any delusions about the magnitude of the task facing Abdul Tejan-Cole.

Photo: Nuhu Ribado, Nigeria's then anti-corruption commissioner, speaking in Abuja at the launch of the "Fix Nigeria" anti-corruption initiative, in October 2006. (Marcus Bensasson)