Corruption is endemic in Nigeria. It drains billions of dollars a year from Africa’s largest economy and most populous country. Systemic corruption also undermines Nigeria’s ability to combat Boko Haram, the world’s deadliest terrorist movement, which has displaced two million people in the country’s war-ravaged North East. Although the United States and Nigeria have been close partners since Nigeria’s democratic transition in 1999, elite corruption has undercut diplomatic relations and undermined US investments in the nation’s development, security, and governance.
Following Muhammadu Buhari’s 2015 presidential election victory, senior US policymakers saw an opportunity to support his aggressive anti-corruption efforts. However, U.S. efforts have thus far been non-confrontational—limited to public speeches and high-level discussions—and have yet to translate into policy action. Corruption is still treated as a secondary, stand-alone issue rather than as a potent threat to US interests.
To move beyond past mistakes, US policymakers should commit to deterring official corruption in the sectors and institutions in which the United States invests significant attention and resources. At a minimum, this plan should establish an interagency working group on Nigerian kleptocracy, station a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigator in Abuja, and promulgate an executive order (EO) restricting financial transactions by corrupt Nigerian officials.
Nigerian official corruption is not new. It has thrived under both civilian and military-led governments, and has involved leaders of all ethnic and religious affiliations.
However, US anti-corruption policy continues to be ineffective in Nigeria for four reasons. First, the interests of senior US policymakers and working-level officials diverge. President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew have defined anticorruption efforts as a US policy priority in Nigeria; they see it as part of a global effort to combat illicit finance, poor governance, and violent extremism. Yet, officials serving at the US Embassy in Abuja—diplomats, military liaisons, and intelligence officers—are mainly concerned with cultivating strong relationships with a wide range of elites, including those complicit in corruption. As a result, US anti-corruption policy remains broad-based and untargeted, centered on modest assistance programs for police investigators and civil society watchdogs.
One area where this tension occurs is visa sanctions under Presidential Proclamation (PP) 7750. Local US diplomats insist visa revocations unnecessarily antagonise their Nigerian counterparts and should be used sparingly. In 2013, an attempt to revoke the visa of a corrupt former minister was derailed by a senior embassy official who claimed that doing so would put US oil companies’ business dealings at risk. Little evidence supports this argument, however, given that when the United States revokes visas, the target is not made public. And at least, one state governor still routinely meets with US diplomats even though he allegedly had his visa revoked under PP 7750 nearly a decade ago.
Second, US officials are not using existing tools—such as consular databases, local law enforcement records, or online searches to conduct basic due diligence—to identify and avoid enabling corrupt officials. As one example, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) funds a rice cultivation project owned by a former attorney general whom the United States sanctioned for corruption in 2010. In April 2016, the US ambassador and USAID officials visited and toured the farm with the owner.
Third, the anti-corruption work of US law enforcement agencies is under-resourced given the size and scope of corruption in Nigeria, its destructive impact on U.S. policy interests, and its role in fueling illegal financial transactions in the United States and Europe. Although the FBI’s International Corruption Unit recently tripled in size, its worldwide focus, heavy caseloads, and long prosecution timelines mean that it can only investigate a handful of the many potential cases involving corrupt Nigerian elites.
Fourth, as with other policy efforts, anti-corruption action is hindered by interagency divides. The US Department of State, Department of Justice, Department of the Treasury, and the U.S. intelligence community rarely collaborate to combat corruption in Nigeria. For example, the State Department and the intelligence community do not routinely provide tips, background information, or expert advice to Justice Department investigators working to locate and seize assets stolen by Nigerian kleptocrats. Further, frequent personnel turnover has hindered attempts by some working-level officials to improve communication and policy coordination.
It is, therefore, important that the United States can combine its anti-corruption policy rhetoric with measurable actions and significantly reduce illicit financial outflows from Nigeria, which Global Financial Integrity estimates exceeded $178 billion from 2004 to 2013.
- Page is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, USA.