Tafa Balogun, the first senior public official to be convicted for corruption, was charged over the theft and laundering of police funds and on Tuesday pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. The High Court judge said the sentence reflected the fact that Mr Balogun had “shown remorse” and was a first-time offender.
Mr Balogun’s arrest was part of a string of high-profile corruption cases involving senior Nigerian officials this year, as the country, a member of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, prepared to make its case to ministers from the Group of Eight industrial nations for a reduction in its more than $30bn (€25bn, £17bn) in external debt. Since agreeing terms for an $18bn Paris Club debt write-off, Nigeria has been keen to prove it can deliver on promises to punish corruption.
“Whether it is six months, six years or one day, the important thing is that we got a jail term, and this is the first time Nigeria has seen such a thing for a senior government official,” said Nuhu Ribadu, chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
Critics of the anti-corruption war led by President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former board member of international corruption watchdog Transparency International, say the efforts to punish corruption have been highly selective. Mr Balogun was once seen as a close ally of Mr Obasanjo. He was appointed in 2002, a year before Nigeria’s last election which many observers noted was marred by police intimidation and vote-rigging.
“I think Nigerians were expecting a much longer trial. There seems to have been a short-circuiting of the process, which is only going to reduce confidence in it,” said Assisi Asobie, head of Nigeria’s chapter of Transparency International.
While companies linked to Mr Balogun have been convicted of money laundering, he has personally escaped such charges. The EFCC says he still faces a separate case of theft and embezzlement over the same funds.
The arrest in London of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, a Nigerian governor, on charges of money laundering has sparked much debate in Nigeria given Mr Alamieyeseigha’s reputation as a political enemy of Mr Obasanjo who has called for a greater share of Nigeria’s oil revenues to be distributed to oil-producing states, such as his state of Bayelsa.
Nigerian authorities have passed to the UK authorities the names of several Nigerian governors under investigation who could also be arrested if they set foot in the UK. Mr Obasanjo would need such help from Britain, which was the principal G8 country in support of Nigeria’s debt write-off, as Nigeria’s 36 governors enjoy constitutional immunity from prosecution in Nigeria.
Sweeping aside his enemies will be a key objective for Mr Obasanjo in putting in a political infrastructure for his chosen successor in 2007 when he is due to step down. The battle lines have already been drawn, with Mr Obasanjo facing off against his own vice-president and his allies, including Mr Alamieyeseigha, who has skipped bail in the UK and returned to Bayelsa only to face an impeachment process. Bayelsa officials have also reported a build-up of federal troops in the state.
However, what international creditors will be looking out for in the short term are the results of an audit of Nigeria’s oil industry, which has been a haven for corruption during 15 years of military rule that ended in 1999. The audit, scheduled to be completed next month, will bear particular relevance to Mr Obasanjo, who doubles as Nigeria’s oil minister.
Dino Mahtani, Financial Times (U.K.), November 24, 2005