President Obama and President Buhari of Nigeria meet on July 20, 2015. The agenda included expanding bilateral cooperation on anti-corruption.In a hard-hitting Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Corruption Brief Improving U.S. Anti-Corruption Policy in Nigeria, I argue that U.S. policymakers could be doing a lot more to deter elite corruption in Africa’s largest economy and most populous country.
Kleptocracy is endemic in Nigeria, diverting billions of dollars a year from public coffers into private hands. It has undermined 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 northeast.
Following Muhammadu Buhari’s 2015 presidential election victory, senior U.S. policymakers saw an opportunity to support his aggressive anticorruption efforts. However, U.S. efforts have thus far been nonconfrontational—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 Washington’s significant investments in Nigeria’s socio-economic development, security, and governance.
Compounding matters, some U.S. diplomats in Nigeria, tasked with building relationships within the same class of elites who enrich themselves using public funds, often resist efforts to sanction Nigerian kleptocrats, turning a blind eye to their unexplained wealth.
To move beyond past mistakes, I argue that U.S. 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 investigator in Abuja, and promulgate an executive order restricting financial transactions by corrupt Nigerian officials.
By taking these steps, the United States can turn its anti-corruption policy rhetoric into potent tools capable of significantly reducing illicit financial outflows from Nigeria, which exceeded US$178 billion between 2004-2013 according to Global Financial Integrity. If U.S. policymakers keep equivocating, Nigerian kleptocrats will continue to see the United States as soft on corruption and a place to stash and spend their ill-gotten gains.
Matthew T. Page is an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the coauthor of Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2017. Previously with the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Page was one of the U.S. intelligence community’s top experts on Nigeria. Follow him on Twitter @matthewtpage.