The fight against corruption has been a top campaign issue in Nigeria’s last two presidential elections, but the history of graft allegati…
The fight against corruption has been a top campaign issue
in Nigeria’s last two presidential elections, but the history of graft
allegations surrounding the two main candidates means neither is likely to
raise it in the run-up to February’s vote.
Front-runner Bola Tinubu, who secured the ruling party’s
nomination earlier this month, was being investigated by the country’s
anti-corruption agency as recently as last June. Three decades ago he fought a
lawsuit in which the US government accused him of laundering the proceeds of
heroin trafficking and eventually reached a settlement.
Atiku Abubakar, his chief rival, brought tens of millions of
dollars of “suspect funds” into the US when he was Nigeria’s vice president in
the 2000s, according to a US Senate report, and was implicated in a bribery
case that resulted in the imprisonment of an American congressman. Neither
episode resulted in charges against Abubakar.
Spokesmen for Tinubu and Abubakar didn’t respond to requests
The next president will face a daunting challenge to turn
around Africa’s largest economy. Falling oil production threatens Nigeria’s
place as the continent’s biggest crude producer, inflation is soaring and more
than half of the working-age population are either unemployed or
The local currency has depreciated steeply under outgoing
President Muhammadu Buhari, falling from around 220 naira to the US dollar on
the widely-used parallel market when he was first elected in early 2015 to
about 600 naira this week.
Nigeria vies with India as the country with the highest number of people living in
extreme poverty despite having a seventh of the population. Meanwhile,
secessionists, Islamist militants and armed criminal gangs terrorize large
swathes of territory.
Efforts to restore security and fix the economy alone will
likely fall short because there’s an unavoidable connection between financial
graft and government dysfunction in Nigeria, said Leena Koni Hoffmann, an
associate fellow at Chatham House in London. Corruption “hollows systems out
and cripples them from the inside,” she said.
Contrast with Buhari
The race will see the two wealthy septuagenarians mobilize
impressive political machines built over more than 30 years pursuing power in
Africa’s most-populous country. Voters in Nigeria are often offered cash, food
or clothing to persuade them to cast their ballots for particular candidates.
On the eve of the last election in 2019, two armored bank
vans were photographed driving into Tinubu’s home. “If I have money
to spend, if I like, I give it to the people for free of charge as long as it’s
not to buy votes,” he told reporters when
asked what the vehicles were transporting.
Tinubu and Abubakar have cultivated deep systems of
political patronage, according to Hoffmann. Both men excel at “engineering and
expanding political networks through co-optation, through channeling and redistributing
money and positions and favors,” she said.
Tinubu, 70, who lives in Lagos’s wealthiest neighborhood,
says he made his fortune before going into politics by investing well and
working as an accountant for companies including Deloitte
LLP. Abubakar, 75, who splits his time between Nigeria and Dubai, spent two
decades working for the government’s customs department and co-founded a large
logistics and oil services firm that has operated concessions at Nigerian
Their lifestyles contrast sharply with Buhari, an austere
80-year-old former general who keeps a herd of cattle at his ranch in the far
north of Nigeria and briefly ruled the country as a military dictator nearly 40
years ago. He was swept to power in 2015 promising to eliminate the corruption
that had flourished under the previous administration.
While Buhari insists he has made some headway in reducing
graft, Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy
Centre in Abuja, said he has “failed woefully”. Still, corruption is likely to
take a back seat this election to more pressing issues, particularly “the
incredible levels of insecurity across the country and the rise in poverty,” he
Decades of Investigations
Tinubu won the ruling All Progressives Congress party’s
primary in a landslide on June 8. A former two-term governor of Lagos state
first elected in 1999 and the most powerful politician in southwestern Nigeria,
he has handpicked his three successors and been dogged by allegations of
lawbreaking for decades.
As of last June, the Economic and Financial Crimes
Commission had an open investigation into Tinubu, the agency’s chairman,
Abdulrasheed Bawa, told ThisDay newspaper
at the time, without specifying what it was scrutinizing. An EFCC spokesman
didn’t respond to questions about whether the probe is still active.
Tinubu is also accused in an ongoing
Nigerian high court case of secretly controlling the company that handles Lagos
state taxes and is entitled to take a 10% cut of what it collects. It was
awarded the contract while Tinubu was governor.
The firm’s founder sued Alpha Beta Consulting LLP and Tinubu
in June 2021, alleging the company had wired out millions of dollars in
“suspicious monetary transfers” and denied him his share of profits for more
than a decade. The plaintiff and ABC are currently discussing an out-of-court
A spokesman for Tinubu, who has not participated in the
talks, told Bloomberg in March that the allegations are “unsubstantiated.”
Revenue raised by the Lagos government rose sharply during
Tinubu’s tenure to 83 billion naira (about $690 million at the time) from less
than 15 billion naira when he took office. In 2020, it was almost 420 billion naira (about
$1.1 billion at the time), more than three times higher than the next-best
performing of the country’s 36 states.
In July 1993, when Tinubu briefly served as a Nigerian
senator, the US government filed a forfeiture lawsuit in Chicago against bank
accounts in his name, claiming there was “probable cause” to believe they held
the proceeds of heroin dealing. The case followed a probe by the Internal
Revenue Service and other agencies into a trafficking network involving
The IRS secured warrants in January 1992 to seize almost $2
million, according to court filings. While living in Chicago between 1989 and
1991, Tinubu had deposited more than $1.8 million into one of the accounts,
before transferring large sums to another bank, according to the US
government’s complaint. While disputing the US’s reason for targeting the
accounts, Tinubu settled in September 1993, agreeing to give up $460,000 to the
US government in exchange for the release of the rest of the money. Tinubu
wasn’t indicted over the matter.
Millions to US
Abubakar is the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party’s
candidate. Nigeria’s vice president from 1999 to 2007, he has run in all four
subsequent elections. Abubakar came second when Buhari was re-elected four
years ago — and during that campaign was granted a temporary suspension of a
US travel ban connected to bribery allegations because he had a reasonable
chance of winning, according to a person familiar with the matter.
A report published in 2010 by the US Senate’s Permanent
Subcommittee on Investigations said one of Abubakar’s wives helped her husband
bring more than $40 million in “suspect funds” into the US while he was
Nigeria’s vice president, including at least $1.7 million in bribes paid by
Siemens AG. Abubakar and his then spouse previously have denied any wrongdoing.
Former US Representative William Jefferson was sentenced to
13 years in prison in 2009 for taking bribes from American companies interested
in doing business in Nigeria and Ghana. In July 2005, Jefferson told a
cooperating witness that then-Vice President Abubakar had also agreed to accept
a bribe in exchange for his assistance, according to the Louisiana
congressman’s indictment. Abubakar has previously rejected the allegations,
saying he had no personal or business relationship with Jefferson.
Abubakar’s hopes of succeeding President Olusegun Obasanjo
in 2007 were torpedoed when the EFCC declared him unfit to hold public office
and a Nigerian Senate panel recommended his prosecution for allegedly diverting
government funds. Abubakar denied the allegations, saying he was the victim of
Both contenders will focus on issues other than corruption
while campaigning, said Hoffmann. “They know it’s not part of their political
image,” she said.