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Nation's anger at Nigerian looters

*Anger at politicians who bled Nigeria dry

- David Blair

(Tuesday, July 5, 2005)

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"This year alone, Mr Obasanjo has dismissed two cabinet ministers and the national police chief, accusing them of misusing huge sums of public money."

The people who endure life in the fetid slums of Lagos are bitterly aware that thieves dressed as politicians have robbed them of practically everything. Much of Nigeria's commercial capital, teeming with perhaps 15 million people, is an urban hell. Some shanty towns are so overcrowded that they spill into the sea - their shacks perched on wooden stilts above 10ft of water. Among the potholed roads and alleys, patrolled by armies of hawkers and street children, there is palpable anger over the corruption that bled Nigeria of 220 billion during the first four decades of independence, impoverishing the great majority of its people.

"Our leaders are corrupt, greedy and selfish men," said Jide Kwaku, who lives in a Lagos shanty. "They siphon our money into their bank accounts - and look, our education system is zero; our roads zero; our hospitals, zero." This bitter experience of misrule and looting on an epic scale has left a sense of fatalism and helplessness. Asked how the G8 group of rich countries could help Nigeria, Mr Kwaku, 44, said: "The only thing the G8 can do for Nigeria is give us visas to get out of here. I would leave now. Can you take me to the British Embassy?" President Olusegun Obasanjo, who restored civilian rule in 1999, is trying to combat this public despair. An official drive against corruption is under way. An Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has named the seven "most wanted" Nigerians, of whom two are thought to be in Britain.

This year alone, Mr Obasanjo has dismissed two cabinet ministers and the national police chief, accusing them of misusing huge sums of public money. The sacked police commissioner, Tafa Balogun, allegedly embezzled 55 million during three years in office. He denies the charges and has pleaded innocent in court. Mr Obasanjo has introduced desperately needed reforms. High oil prices have given Nigeria a windfall that would once have gone into senior officials' pockets. Instead, a new Excess Crude Earnings Account, open to public scrutiny, holds these funds, and currently contains 4.6 billion. But huge sums are still squandered by Nigeria's 36 states and 774 local governments, all based on shameless political patronage. Public funds are used to buy off opponents, while vastly inflated contracts are awarded to the relatives or cronies of officials, in return for large kickbacks.

Recent cases show that corruption is still endemic at local level. In Anambra state, the authorities built a specialist hospital and 23 rural clinics. But all their medicine and equipment disappeared - apparently sold for private profit. Unable to treat any patients, these desperately needed facilities have been reduced to empty shells. Kwara state government spent more than 700,000 on a new maize mill, but officials then sold it and pocketed the proceeds. Across Nigeria, loans are routinely given for non-existent projects, and state assets are simply appropriated by public servants and sold for personal gain. Even officials not suspected of corruption benefit from lavish perks. Muhamadu Lawal Uwais, the Chief Justice, has seven official cars, including two Mercedes. "Of course I can't enter all the cars at the same time," he told the press. "My wives use them." But nothing in Nigeria today compares with the venality of previous rulers. The sums looted by past leaders comfortably exceed the 155 billion of oil revenues reaped in the last 30 years. At present, perhaps 55 billion of private Nigerian assets languish in overseas bank accounts, according to western analysts - enough to repay the country's entire foreign debt more than twice over. Critics say that corruption has become so deeply embedded in the political system that it can be dealt with only by a completely new approach and a new government.

Mr Obasanjo, 68, is a political veteran, who led a military regime for three years in the 1970s. Many doubt that he is capable of curbing corruption. Prof Pat Utomi, from Lagos Business School, said the president "lacked legitimacy" following accusations of ballot-rigging in the past two elections. He said the best service the G8 could perform for Nigeria would be to open up western markets for its exports and hold Mr Obasanjo to the highest standards. "Insisting on good governance is so important," he said. "Sometimes the West says it so glibly, and some African leader chants 'anti-corruption' and that's taken as good governance. It has to go much further than that. "If leaders in the West can openly convey their contempt for African leaders whose true behaviour they know, instead of being so polite, then maybe we would have fewer such people."

Prof Utomi believes that Nigeria would win from open access to western markets. The country's handful of genuine entrepreneurs are highly skilled and provide a modest ray of hope. Remi Olukoya, managing director of OK Computers, has an office on Victoria Island, a wealthy Lagos district. Even here, he has to battle power and water cuts. When he imports computer hardware, it usually takes two months to extract the goods from venal officials at Lagos port. But despite everything, Mr Olukoya, 38, is determined to stay. "I've thought of leaving, but then I think, 'Look at this place with 130 million hard-working, talented people,' If our leaders would just change, things could improve. We are a volcano of opportunities - waiting to erupt."

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Reuters Odd News Summary

Ex police chief run over by squad - Reuters, July 1, 2005

Tafa Balagun in hospital after scuffle with EFCC
[ Photo Above: Sacked Nigerian police chief, Balagun in hospital after scuffle with EFCC ]

Nigeria's graft-tainted former police chief fell out of a squad car which then rolled over his legs Wednesday in a bizarre incident after a court ruled he would face a second trial on corruption charges.

Tafa Balogun is accused of stealing and laundering $100 million in his three years as Inspector General of Police in one of the most high-profile cases resulting from a government crackdown on graft. He denies the accusations.

Balogun is already facing trial on 50 charges brought by the government's anti-corruption agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Wednesday, a court in Abuja ruled he would face a second trial to cover further charges.

Proceedings drifted into farce after the decision was read.

Police tried to drive Balogun away to complete bail formalities but his defense lawyer resisted and in the confusion Balogun was shoved into a police car which sped off before the doors were closed. A short distance away Balogun fell out of the car and the back wheels went over his legs.

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