Nigeria must defend the rule of law and prosecute officials who commit fraud

By Chantal Uwimana and Auwal Musa Rafsanjani


Nigeria hits the global headlines these days for two reasons: terrorism and corruption. Both are complicated but not intractable problems. They require a government committed to defending the rule of law. In the case of corruption, which threatens the lives of so many of the poor, there may be a slackening of will to do the right thing.

Take the recent pension scandal. This week a judge remanded in custody six people charged with defrauding the government of billions of dollars. But in the previous week, a senate committee appeared to question the investigation that had led to the arrests and suggested that further investigation happen behind closed doors.

This must not be allowed to happen: it signals a two-track justice system where impunity is granted to those with political connections, it weakens the rule of law and it opens the door for further corruption.

That is why national and international pressure must be kept up to ensure that the judiciary can carry out its task independent of pressure from the legislature and the executive. They have a strong case.

Pictures of frail, old people standing for hours in the hot sun to collect their state pensions recently spurred the Nigerian government to set up the Pension Reform Task Team to investigate. What it found was not just a story of bureaucratic incompetence but one of widespread corruption that threatened lives and livelihoods.

A cadre of bureaucrats had created dummy accounts for thousands of “ghost” pensioners and was siphoning off about NGN39.6 billion (about US$252.2 million) annually, at a time when as many as 44,320 eligible pensioners went without pensions for decades.

The investigators found more than 71,000 “ghost” Nigerian pensioners on the pension system books using a special biometric matching machine. The government was paying out NGN504 million (US$3.2 million) monthly in pensions when the actual bill should have been less than half that amount.

One top civil servant in the pension unit was found to have nearly NGN190 million (US$1.2 million) stashed in his private residence. Another had 555 different accounts in his name at one bank.

The good news is that the scam has been stopped and NGN27.2 billion (US$46 million) restored to the Nigerian treasury.

Unfortunately, scams like this are far too common in Nigeria, where regional administrations use “ghost” workers to divert public funds for private gain. Not surprisingly Nigeria is ranked 143 out of 183 in the 2011 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. But the government has a chance to bring about change.

Despite arresting 32 people, in early March the investigations started to take a different turn. A Senate Committee was set up to look into the methods used by the Pension Reform Task Team not its results. There were allegations about the funds used to buy the biometric machine. Then there were claims that the investigation had not used the proper procedures.

For all of us working to stamp out corruption, this is disheartening but not surprising. In the past when commissions and investigations have turned up corruption, it has been customary for the investigators to be bought off or put off. With several high ranking civil servants in the cadre of Directors and Permanent Secretaries already arrested, clearly some other politicians are becoming jittery.

This change of tactics – to shoot the messenger rather than heed the message — is seen by some as a pre-emptive response to stop the Pension Reform Task Team releasing more revelations.

So far the Team is resisting pressure to do a deal behind closed doors. It has some strong government support too. Its findings were publicly confirmed by the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (a candidate for World Bank presidency) and the former Head of Civil Service of the Federation, Steve Oronsaye.

The Team also has a strong ally in civil society, which is committed to keeping pressure on the government to bring those guilty of corruption to justice.

The stakes are high. The effects of corruption can be devastating, particularly in poor countries such as Nigeria where more than half the population live in poverty. A 2010 United Nations report suggested Nigeria has little chance of meeting its poverty, education, maternal health and sanitation targets by 2015.

Clearly the NGN27.2 billion (US$46 million) saved from breaking the pension scam can be put to good use. Just as important, high profile convictions will act as a deterrent.  The arrests today are a good first step. When the rule of law is upheld, it sends a strong message to those who would try to abuse the system for personal gain.

On the issue of preventing corruption, President Goodluck Jonathan should not only take note, but also take a stand.

Auwal Musa Rafsanjani is executive director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre in Abuja, Nigeria, a non-governmental organisation that that works to strengthen democracy and human rights legislation in Nigeria and educate lawmakers and the electorate.

Chantal Uwimana is Regional Director for Africa for Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organisation.