Nigeria’s president has hit back after David Cameron called his country “fantastically corrupt”, denouncing western states for their poor record in returning looted funds to nations struggling to shake off kleptocracy.
In a speech in London on Wednesday ahead of a corruption summit on Thursday, Muhammadu Buhari made no direct mention of the British prime minister’s disparaging remarks, which were picked up by a nearby television camera as Mr Cameron spoke with the Queen at a Buckingham Palace reception.
But the 73-year-old former military ruler, who won last year’s elections on a pledge to clean up pervasive graft in Africa’s biggest economy, stressed that corruption was not the sole preserve of poor countries.
“Corruption is a hydra-headed monster,” said Mr Buhari, who has been grappling with a vast system of patronage and theft fuelled by revenues from the continent’s biggest oil industry. “It does not differentiate between developed and developing countries.”
Mr Buhari, billed by summit organisers as a star turn, called for the establishment of “international anti-corruption infrastructure” that could trace looted money and return it “without delay or precondition”.
He thanked the US and Switzerland for working to return more than $ 600m stolen by the late dictator Sani Abacha. But he complained that “our experience has been that repatriation of corrupt proceeds is very tedious, time-consuming and costly”.
The Nigerian government has been at pains to reassure the Swiss authorities and World Bank officials who have a mandate to oversee the repatriation of those funds that they will not simply seep out of government coffers once again.
Asked later by Sky News, Mr Buhari acknowledged that Nigeria was corrupt and said he would not be asking Mr Cameron for an apology.
His call for international co-operation appears to echo in part Mr Cameron’s plans to establish an anti-corruption information-sharing agency based in London. Details of the agency, such as its scope, funding and member countries, are expected to be announced at the summit.
The Nigerian president said his government was working to trace “billions of dollars” siphoned into local and international banks.
His comments highlight growing concerns among reform-minded leaders of countries whose revenues have long bled away through embezzlement and corruption.
One top corruption investigator estimates that the wealth marooned in the financial system by the death and overthrow of kleptocrats runs at least into the tens of billions of dollars — sums that dwarf the budgets of many of the countries from which the money was looted. The pot is thought to have grown in recent years with the revolutions in eastern Europe and then the Arab uprising.
Meanwhile, a series of scandals has shone a light on the west’s role as a conduit for ill-gotten wealth. The UK’s National Crime Agency estimates that hundreds of billions of dollars of criminal money pass through British banks each year.
In his speech, Mr Buhari also mused on the constraints of battling corruption in a democracy. His previous tenure began with a military coup in 1983 and ended with another two years later. A foiled plot in 1984 to kidnap an allegedly corrupt former official living in London and fly him back to Nigeria in a crate became the symbol of Mr Buhari’s disciplinarian style.
Back then, Mr Buhari said, he considered officials accused of lining their pockets guilty until proven innocent. Now, as the winner of the first Nigerian election in which a defeated incumbent left office of his own accord, he appeared frustrated.
“The system is so tolerant of corruption in Nigeria that I see [corrupt officials] riding [in a] Rolls-Royce but they are innocent until proven guilty.”
Optimism among Nigerians eager to see swift reform under Mr Buhari’s watch has been damped by a fuel crisis that has gripped the country since March.
Last week Mr Buhari acknowledged the severity of the challenges his government is confronting. Tumbling crude prices have dramatically reduced the oil revenues that generate about 80 per cent of government income. “We are experiencing probably the toughest economic times in the history of our nation,” the president said.
Many Nigerians seem willing to accept that reform, if it comes, will be slow.
“The system is completely broken,” said Erifeoluwa Olurin, a university student in Lagos. “He cannot fix it overnight.”
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