Nigeria’s anti-corruption law enforcement efforts are gradually growing more effective as practitioners adapt and innovate in response to many persistent challenges. Sometimes caricatured as sclerotic, politicized, or error-prone, high-level anti-corruption efforts are becoming noticeably more innovative and pragmatic.
Instead of being abandoned under pressure or resulting in decade-long, quixotic prosecutions, high-profile corruption cases increasingly involve new, more pragmatic resolutions. These include plea bargains and asset forfeiture as well as probationary and non-custodial sentences. In instances where political stakes are high and the likelihood of successful criminal prosecution is low, these tools are now seen as faster, more straightforward, and more viable than traditional criminal prosecutions.
Key Takeaways from New Research
These conclusions stem from new research conducted by a University of Edinburgh-led GI-ACE research team that is currently finalizing the most systematic, comprehensive study to date of the legal frameworks, prosecutorial strategies, institutional constraints, and external influences shape anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Malawi.
Following are some preliminary findings from the team’s Nigeria-focused research:
- The prosecution of high-level corruption cases in Nigeria has progressed somewhat in recent years, yet many shortfalls and obstacles to additional progress remain. Key legislative reforms, as well as innovations and pragmatic adaptations undertaken by prosecutors and investigators, underpinned much of this progress.
- Strategic patience—anti-corruption practitioners’ ability to build stronger cases, avoid pitfalls, resist outside influences, and wait until high-level suspects are no longer untouchable—led to more successful prosecutorial outcomes.
- The politicization of anti-corruption prosecutions is a double-edged sword. While powerful high-level suspects are often untouchable, they can suddenly become vulnerable when political winds invariably shift. This creates opportunities for anti-corruption agencies to maximize the effectiveness of their prosecutions.
- Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies must strike a stronger, more sustainable balance in their high-level corruption investigations, continuing to pursue ‘easy wins’ like non-conviction-based asset forfeitures while also selectively attempting riskier prosecutions that aim to secure convictions.
- Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies still require several legislative fixes, increased budgetary support, and more constructive and independent oversight in order to function more effectively.
- The country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is a robust and effective organization but has tough choices to make about its future direction, especially how it manages organizational growth and resists political influence.
- The EFCC’s sister agencies—the Independent Corruption Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB)—possess significant untapped potential that could be energised by simple legislative fixes, sustained investment, and modest reforms.
Seeking to be policy relevant, this research points toward several feasible recommendations that Nigerian decision makers, international policymakers, and other key stakeholders can act upon, including the following:
- President Muhammadu Buhari—who has three more years left in his presidential term—should take concrete steps to foster greater judicial independence by institutionalizing real financial autonomy for the judiciary, which currently depends on disbursements that are often unduly delayed by the executive branch.
- President Buhari also needs to institute and enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward executive branch interference with the courts and anti-corruption agencies. Like with the courts, he needs to ensure funds budgeted to anti-corruption agencies are released in a timely way.
- The President should also demand that anti-corruption agencies demonstrate greater transparency with regard to their budgets and expenditures, developing strategic, capacity-building spending plans. He also must appoint more respected technocrats, jurists, and civil society figures to serve on the boards of the anti-corruption agencies and reduce the de facto control board members have over staffing and operational decisions.
- The National Assembly—Nigeria’s federal legislature—should sit down with the EFCC, ICPC, and CCB in order to undertake long overdue legislative fixes and improvements to their establishing acts and other key laws routinely used to prosecute cases. Legislators should, for example, pass laws that enable anti-corruption agencies to better handle emerging challenges such as cryptocurrencies (e.g. BitCoin) and witness protection.
- Nigeria’s main anti-corruption agencies—the EFCC, ICPC and CCB—should increase transparency as well as intensify collaboration and information–sharing with other government agencies and non-governmental partners. They must also work to improve case management and professionalize prosecutors to ensure that the agency prosecutes a more limited number of cases to a higher standard.
- The EFCC, in particular, should be careful to avoid ‘mission creep’ and maintain the focus of agency resources on high-level corruption investigations and prosecutions. This should include relinquishing secondary mandates—particularly investigating and prosecuting cybercrime cases—by transferring all but a few of the most complex cases to the police.
- The international community—particularly the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union—need to reinvigorate their financial and technical assistance to Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies and its judiciary, elevating it back to levels seen in the early 2000s. Perhaps more importantly, however, these countries need to take a tough look at how their own policies—and policy failures—that make Nigerian anti-corruption efforts more difficult. For example, Western policymakers need to ask why politically exposed Nigerians suspected of corrupt practices enjoy near-total freedom to spend their unexplained wealth on high-end property, private schools, and luxury goods in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe.
With this research and set of recommendations in hand, the University of Edinburgh-led GI-ACE research team is confident that the narratives surrounding anti-corruption law enforcement in Nigeria can be positively influenced. By looking at evidence of what is actually happening—rather than relying on apocryphal accounts or stereotypes—policymakers, practitioners, civil society, and international partners can work together more effectively to support effective anti-corruption law enforcement practice in Nigeria.
Associate Fellow, Chatham House
Prior to joining Chatham House’s Africa Programme, where Page provides in-depth analysis on security, governance, and socioeconomic issues in Nigeria, he was the U.S. intelligence community’s top Nigeria expert, serving with the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Defense Intelligence Agency and Marine Corps Intelligence. Page also served as deputy national intelligence officer for Africa on the National Intelligence Council.
Page travels frequently to Nigeria to speak, conduct research, and engage with government officials and civil society. He received his BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford and his MA in War Studies from King’s College London.