Corruption is a scourge. This is particularly true for developing countries and perhaps most dramatically in Nigeria. It is easy to agree on the damage it causes, as well as to establish a consensus to punish it. Finding a way to overcome it and relegate it to history is much more of a challenge. Many developing countries have fallen prey to their own citizens and even their leaders, while others are at the mercy of international investors, either paying bribes or wrongfully wielding power of international law.
Corruption is a human dysfunction. It is a means of exercising power for personal ends. If exercised at the national level by business and government officials, it harms economies and impoverishes the weakest. A particularly corrosive aspect is that it involves both the corrupter and the corrupted in a greater or lesser relationship. She often masquerades as business and even as so-called “international relations”.
The debate over corruption in Africa tends to be portrayed by outsiders as a fundamental flaw of the continent or at least some countries. It is prejudicial and hypocritical. There are indeed blatant cases of corruption, particularly notable in a large economy like Nigeria. The Nigerian people need no reminder, and President Buhari’s government has identified the fight against corruption as a central policy.
Critics sitting far from African shores should at the same time look at themselves – corruption exists in all countries. The spotlight must be on both the corrupter and the corrupted. Large multinationals and other organizations have operated with perceived immunity, thus entrenching corrupt practices. International oil companies, for example, have often played the role of instructing their Nigerian colleagues in the art of deception for profit. These practices have resulted in massive losses for the people of the country and a total distortion of a fair job and business market. All partners in this dance of death are guilty.
Africa and its friends – in other words the countries and companies genuinely committed to the development of the continent – deserve better and are arguably now at the crossroads of opportunities and challenges.
Instruments such as the Anti-Bribery Act in the UK and similar laws in the US and Japan have curbed most corporate corruption activities. Gaps remain in Europe and in the jurisdictions of some other major investors. This does not mean that there are no forfeitures. A particularly shocking case is that of a British subsidiary of the mining and commodities group Glencore which was recently ordered to pay £281 million for its practices in Africa – the highest payment imposed on a company by a British court. . For more than a decade, UK-based companies have been subject to the law and a number have come to the authorities for past offences.
We are also seeing a major case in the UK courts, which shows that a new approach needs to be taken. This case pits the Federal Republic of Nigeria against Process & Industrial Developments (P&ID), a front company backed by a vulture fund. He is due to be heard at trial in the High Court in London in January 2023. It is up to the courts to clarify exactly what happened, but the Nigerian government accuses P&ID of trying to defraud it through a carefully constructed scam . Whatever the outcome, what is clearly disproportionate is the P&ID arbitration award obtained against the Nigerian government, worth approximately $11 billion. In other words, a sum more than ten times the entire annual national health budget of the country. It should be about punishing the disbelievers, not the countries.
President Buhari’s attempts to fight corruption are to be commended. So does his government’s willingness to stand up and challenge this verdict, rather than taking what could be described as the easy way out and settling the long-running dispute, before it reaches the High Court. With Buhari excluded from the upcoming presidential election by term limit, his successor will also have to carry on his important legacy. The reason is simple; taking their case to conclusion in the High Court will demonstrate to would-be bribers that rewards beyond justification are no longer available for this type of speculative operation.
Eradicating corruption requires evolutionary change punctuated by visible actions. It certainly requires the identification and prosecution of domestic individuals and, where appropriate, foreign organizations. It needs strong leadership from politicians who can point out how their country can benefit from transparent, high-quality investments rather than shady deals. It also needs strict legislation on the global business community to stamp out bribery. In other words, the fight against corruption requires a united front between those who want the good development of African prosperity and a tough approach to damaging behavior.
The eyes of all who seek prosperity for the people of Africa will be fixed on the lawsuit between the Nigerian government and P&ID in January. They will all seek to ensure that the victory of the Nigerian government marks a turning point, not only for them, but for the entire African continent.
Written in collaboration with Tim Morris
Tim Morris is a former British Ambassador to Morocco, Mauritania and South Sudan. He was also Senior Trade Adviser for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.