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Snakes and monkeys are getting the blame for corruption in Nigeria

Corruption has played havoc with Nigeria’s economy. EPA/Onome Oghene

There is something strange afoot in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. Animals have been making away with huge sums of money. No, this is not a euphemism.

When a team of auditors recently tried to check the accounts of the Nigerian exam board for public universities, ₦36m (naira) (about US$100,000) could not be accounted for. A clerk reported that the money had been stolen from the vault by a “snake”, which swallowed it. Then, in February, a senator, defending a colleague accused of misappropriating funds, suggested that a missing ₦70m (about US$194,600) was carted away by monkeys on the other senator’s farm.

The stories are not a reflection of strange evolutionary behaviour. They highlight the profound corruption problems that exist in Nigeria.

The bane of corruption

Corruption is the bane of many societies. Usually involving public officials abusing their position for the sake of personal gain, corruption damages the legitimacy of government in the eyes of citizens and weakens the social fabric of society. Not to mention the fact that public money does not go towards much needed facilities like education and healthcare.

Research also shows that corruption increases the cost of doing business and reduces investment. It leads to less satisfaction with the government, lower levels of social and institutional trust, and a greater willingness to break rules. This might, in turn, create a vicious circle of even more corruption, inefficiency and lower economic growth.

Corruption is seen as a particular problem in Africa and emerging economies in general. In Nigeria, it has been highlighted that many problems, including the Boko Haram insurgency, feed off corruption. When he ran for the presidency in 2015, Muhammadu Buhari promised to prioritise the fight against corruption.

Yet things seem to only be getting worse. Transparency International, the global anti-corruption watchdog, revealed in late February that corruption in Nigeria actually worsened between 2016 and 2017. Out of 180 countries assessed in 2017 as part of the annual Corruption Perception Index, Nigeria ranked 148 – a fall from 136 in 2016.

It is important to note that even Transparency International acknowledges that no country is completely clean. And, when considering Buhari’s record on fighting corruption, it’s worth remembering that he has recently sacked the head of the country’s anti-corruption agency over allegations that US$5 billion had gone missing, allegations the agency head has denied.

Plus, the judge currently in charge of handling corruption cases against public officials in Nigeria has also been accused of corruption, in court filings, according to local media. Not to mention the US$800,000 in cash, reported to have been seized in raids in 2016 targeting senior Nigerian judges suspected of corruption.

Lessons from other countries

Perhaps Nigeria can learn from other nations that have faced similar problems. One shudders to think what would have happened to the officials that blamed animals for missing funds if they were in China. Recall that Liu Zhijun, China’s former railways minister, was sentenced to death for corruption in 2013. Liu Zhijun was found guilty of accepting £6m in bribes between 1986 and 2011 and using his position to help 11 people win promotions or lucrative contracts.

These offences are trivial compared to the much larger sums and far graver offences that Nigerian public office holders have been accused of. Nigerians frequently wake to new allegations of corruption that involve vast sums of money.

Other nations that have improved their GDP per capita and the welfare of their citizens by cracking down on corruption offer hope. The lesson of using stringent anti-corruption laws and empowering anti-corruption institutions can be learnt from Singapore and South Korea. The lesson of using e-government and citizen involvement to curb corruption can also be learnt from Singapore and many central and eastern European countries.

The effect of a strong political will in the fight against corruption has been seen in Qatar and the UAE. Problems persist, but Transparency International credits them with a higher ranking on its index this year. And the effect of external pressure in tackling corruption can be learnt from countries that had to improve their corruption indices to meet the requirements for accession into the EU.

The fact that a number of countries are taking effective strides to tackle corruption makes the strange phenomena of animals being blamed for missing funds in Nigeria even more galling. Many Nigerians resorted to humour in response to the reports – there is clearly a mix of resignation and frustration at this new twist on a common news story. For the sake of the country and its citizens, let’s hope for a reversal in this trend.

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