The Challenges of Fighting Corruption in Nigeria, by UK Envoy

Eniola Bello and Ms Laure Beaufils

As the United Nations marks the Anti-Corruption Day today, British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, Ms Laure Beaufils, in an interview with Eniola Bello, spoke about the UK assistance to Nigeria – the progress, the challenges and the prospects, among other issues. Excerpts:

On October 31, 20003, the United Nations in its passage of Anti-Corruption Convention set aside December 9 every year as Anti-Corruption Day to raise public awareness for anti-corruption. That UN Convention charged its delegates to, among others, “promote, facilitate and support international cooperation and technical assistance in the prevention of and fight against corruption”. What has the United Kingdom done in these areas to help Nigeria fight corruption?

We have been very engaged in the anti-corruption agenda working with Nigerians and the government in Nigeria for a very long time. Right now, the UK department for international development (DFID) has a very large programme that supports the government’s fight against corruption, and it is £20 million over five years through a programme called Anti-Corruption in Nigeria Programme (ACORN).

That programme is really looking at three things that DFID refers to as the three S, which are Sanctions, Society and Systems, and by that, we are focusing on strengthening capacity of the agencies working on corruption as well as the judiciary, strengthening their capacity to investigate corruption and to take forward the cases to the various stages of sanction systems.

It is also looking at society: what are people’s perceptions of corruption? How can we ensure that people really say “no to corruption” systematically and are increasingly engaged in demanding an end to corruption? Working with civil society groups and individuals, in particular youths, we are getting a sense that a critical mass of the people are saying they have had enough. And this is based on a lot of research and evidence to inform our mission.
We are also working to strengthen the systems. I think it is a very comprehensive package designed to work with the government and civil society partners to address corruption. But, of course, aside from the programmatic work, it is part of our diplomatic conversation on a regular basis, and it is part of our engagement here in Lagos with businesses, because sadly, corruption is often something that we see across sectors that we cover here in Nigeria.
So, across all the things we do, it is a subject that we come up with and we discuss in practical conversation with our counterparts and in our diplomatic conversations.

In that area of your work you mentioned sanctions, how many Nigerians, who are politically exposed have been sanctioned by your government?
I’d like to go back to Nigerians and this is about Nigerians taking responsibility in Nigeria for people, who have been corrupt in this country and that is the sanctions regime that I am talking about. It is about strengthening the capacity of the agencies to detect, investigate and prosecute cases of corruption here, domestically.

Would you say the anti-corruption agencies have been able to do as much as you expected considering the kind of assistance that you have given them over the years?
I think a lot has happened and if we looked back at what has happened over the years, it is easy for a lot of people to think not much has happened but I think there have been a lot of things that have been done over the years. For instance, on the issue of systems that we have been talking about, we have seen the Treasury Single Account (TSA), we have now got the Bank Verification Number (BVN), we have got the government’s commitment to Open Government Partnership and we now have an Action Plan around the Open Government Partnership, which is really a good way to start addressing transparency and we can address the issue of corruption that way.

There is also the global dialogue on asset recovery, and there is a lot that are being done, but of course, a lot more still needs to be done and I think if you asked me where we need to put in a lot more efforts I would agree that it is in strengthening the capacity of the enforcement agencies to enforce the sanction part of things and we will continue to focus on that and we urge the government to continue to invest in this.

The other area where we will like to see a lot of progress is in the legislative side, because there are still some anti-corruption bills that are not passed and which we think are really essential, and in particular, The Proceeds of Crime Bill, which is something we look forward to see it passed as soon as possible.

Talking of recovery of assets, I remember when your former Prime Minister Cameron described Nigerians as fantastically corrupt and President Buhari, in his response, said he would prefer the recovery of stolen assets instead of an apology. We do know that the UK is a major destination country for the proceeds of corruption from Nigeria. What is your government doing to ensure that such stolen assets are recovered?
We have recorded some success stories this year. We have recovered about £70 million of the Malabu loot and that has gone straight to government’s treasury account. The government will be able to use it as it sees fit and civil society organisations are monitoring how that is being done to ensure the money goes where it is intended to go. I think the fact that that happened a few months ago is a demonstration of our commitment to making sure that stolen assets are recovered and I can assure you that we have no intention of keeping a single pound of money looted from Nigeria.

What we are doing is to ensure that (due) legal processes are done in a very thorough fashion and that they are not rushed so that we can have due process that is followed, and on the back of that, assets that were stolen are returned, so, I expect that we will be seeing more of that. I know that some people are frustrated that it is taking so much time and I understand the desire for things to move fast, but I know that we will be seeing more of such funds being returned such as we have seen in the Malabu loot.

So, aside from the Malabu loot, are there no others?
There may be things that are ongoing but of course you can understand my constraint. We don’t speak about any ongoing legal cases. But I know that right now in the UK, there are works that are ongoing to ensure that funds that have been looted are returned.

A Nigerian court has ordered the anti-graft agency to get a former energy minister, Deziani Alison-Madueke, who is in the UK to stand trial in Nigeria. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has said it is going through the process of having her repatriated to Nigeria. How will the UK assist with that?
I hear what you are saying and I know there are a lot of questions around that but as you know this is an ongoing case and I really cannot comment on cases that are ongoing.

There is also the case of Kola Aluko, who has alleged cases of corruption. Is there a way the UK government can help Nigeria get him back to the country?
I cannot talk about these particular cases for legal reasons. However, the level of cooperation between UK and Nigeria is amongst the strongest between the UK and other countries. But in this kind of case, there are a lot of discussions ongoing and information being shared between our National Crime Agency and its counterparts here, and I think that level of relationship is growing from strength to strength. We are working as you know and a lot of the work is behind the scene, as you can understand it will be right that they are behind the scenes.

One of the key pillars of the Buhari administration when it was inaugurated was to fight corruption. You have been in Nigeria now for two years, how would you assess the fight against corruption by this government?
I think it takes us back to the point I was trying to make earlier. I think there has been progress. There has been the TSA, the BVN, we spoke about the Global Open Government Partnership and (its) Action Plan; these are measures that are being put in place. But the point for me is that it is a long term process. These things take a very long time. We are talking about behaviour change, changing the understanding of what’s right, what’s wrong, social norms – these things take very long time. I think there have been a lot of structures of government business, which are hard to change. It will take time and I think one of the key challenges is getting the political leadership to focus on this, continuing to build capacity of the key agencies and the judiciary to ensure that the sanction regime is really put in place.

And of course changing norms, changing behaviours and changing societal perception of corruption so that when you see corruption you say no, stop it; and make it your personal responsibility not just the responsibility of someone, who is more powerful. So, I believe it is a journey, and according to a poll (price Waterhouse Coopers) conducted in 2016, only 20 per cent of Nigerians believe the government is fighting corruption very well.

Why the people think that the government is not fighting corruption is, because the court process is slow and of course, some people think that the government is using it as a tool to fight the opposition. What do you think the government could do across board to ensure it moves faster and there’s better result?
It’s a two-in-one question that you have asked, because you talked about moving faster whilst of course it needs to be sustainable. That is speed and systems and ultimately what you need for a country to really have robust anti-corruption policies is strong institutions. If you had those then you are much more protected from corruption but these take a very long time to do and I think a long time approach is absolutely necessary. The chances are also that the people have short time expectations and political cycles are also short time.
Putting perpetrators behind bars is a short term reward and I think that is really important but it is also important to focus on longer term anti-corruption initiatives. In fact, there are no quick wins, because the legal system is long and I know that you gather data and information on large corruption cases and you just need a little bit more time to do all those things.

What would you say are the challenges you have over the years assisting Nigeria in fighting corruption?
I think there are lots of challenges, but so much has to do with the system, (elements of which could undoubtedly benefit from) an overhaul. Although there are a lot of champions, there are also vested interests and I think the vested interests are the ones that are moving back progress. That’s a challenge there. I spoke about the challenge of long term institution building and strengthening public support and interest despite that, a long term agenda is important. And then there is the political side of it so that priorities that may have been clearly set can become secondary. That is also a challenge.

Moving to the February 2019 elections, what is your government doing to ensure that Nigeria conducts free, fair and credible elections?
We have been working with all stakeholders on elections for a very long time. We have been engaging on political issues and elections for a very long time. Through our Department for International Development (DFID) we have a very strong programme of support in assisting the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and we are working very closely with all stakeholders, through proper political participation on one hand and everyone, in particular youths and women, to ensure that the people have a voice and go out and vote.
We also have a programme with INEC to ensure that they have the capacity to put in place the basic right systems and at the polling stations to minimize the opportunity for fraud. On the political level, we are working with parties to make it clear that we expect that the elections are free, credible and indeed peaceful and that is very important, and I think we have made it very clear through large interventions and we also made this clear when the Prime Minister was here.
You could see through very different levels of interactions what needs to happen to help ensure there is no form of intimidation and it is important that we speak out clearly and publicly on this. You’ll remember the case of the Osun rerun elections a few months ago, it was a strong statement that we put out with the European Union, because we did witness practices that were very concerning and then we thought we needed to speak out.

In the north east, the Boko Haram terrorists appear to be returning stronger despite claims that it had been technically defeated. As Nigeria’s traditional partner, why is it difficult for the Nigerian government to overcome this terror group despite your support over the years?
I think it is the ISIS in West Africa that is responsible for a lot of the terror in the North East. Why it is so difficult to defeat as it is often the case with terror or guerrilla organisations is because they use unconventional methods, including sending young girls and women with guns on their backs, attacking and bombing populations of people and it is very difficult spot them in a crowd.

It is very difficult to know what Islamic State West Africa is planning and it is very difficult to stop them. I think the government has to really focus on them and I think we have all seen an upsurge and I think it is important that we do speak about it. We are really committed to fighting extremism alongside Nigeria.
We have provided a lot of support, not only to the military in Nigeria to address terrorism and I think it is right that we continue to focus on the North-east right now, because a lot of people are suffering and this is why the UK department for international Development is in the Northeast to seeing that the people have access to basic services and put them in Internally Displaced Camps.
But now because of security concerns they are worried about putting out people there, so, I think it is really essential that we continue to shine the spotlight on North east and on the situation there, and on the civilian population that are suffering.

Some months back, Prime Minister Theresa May was in Nigeria, and shortly after, Prince Charles was also here. The general thinking was that they were on tour of some African countries to explore new markets post-Brexit. How do you respond to this?
The Prime Minister came to Africa because Africa really matters to her and the UK. When she made a speech in Cape Town, she spoke about the breadth of the partnership that we have with African countries and that is certainly not a post-Brexit opportunistic trade relationship. It is much more, because it includes (not just trade but other issues such as climate change to Fintech, and arts and culture); and indeed the fact that while she was in Nigeria, she celebrated that by wearing a Nigerian made jacket.
So, the relationship is not just about trade. Of course the relationship about trade and partnership is true but this is a win-win relationship, where we trade UK investments into Africa in general and Nigeria in particular; and that will create wealth in the UK and in Nigeria. And indeed she has committed the UK to becoming the top G7 investor in Africa by 2022 and this is long term. So, to say it is just about Brexit, no, it is much broader than Brexit. More than ever before, it is about a more forward-looking, stronger and fruitful commercial relationship with all our key partners around the world and certainly Nigeria is one of them.
As for his Royal Highness, Prince Charles, he and his wife, The Duchess of Cornwall, often go on tours and to Commonwealth countries in particular. As you know at the Commonwealth Summit that held this year, it was confirmed that he would become the head of the Commonwealth after Her Majesty, the Queen, so he is more than ever before interested in Commonwealth countries.
He has visited here on very many occasions before Brexit. It wasn’t Brexit that made him come here. He is interested in the people; he’s interested in Nigeria’s culture, the values. He has personal interests that he (has been able to drive, such as his commitment to environmental sustainability and creative industries), so it is not really about Brexit. It is about the history and the personal relationship between the royal family and the people of Nigeria.

Two years of your duty tour here, how much of Nigeria have you explored? What is your impression of the people, the culture and the government?
I have travelled all over the states of the South-west and I have travelled to Kwara, Enugu, Rivers State; I have gone to Kaduna. I have gone to a lot of states and my plan is to travel to many more before I leave. I honestly feel it is a great privilege for me to be serving in Nigeria. I never expected to be so energised by the people in particular and I keep saying to everyone, who asked me that Nigeria’s greatest asset is its people and not just its oil.
Its youth in particular that I have seen here is second to none. The entrepreneurship and the desire to do better for oneself and the community and indeed one’s country. I find that energising and indeed inspirational. I also think Nigerians are also resilient, fun-loving; they are hugely very respectful and I consider myself to be very lucky to meet very many Nigerian friends in the last two years and I know that I will be making more friends before I go.

I am sending the message loud and clear to the UK and I know that sometimes Nigeria suffers bad name in the UK and that they are as a result of stereotypes or rather as a result of Boko Haram or corruption, which unfortunately taints the reputation of Nigeria. Yes, there is truth in that but I can assure you that those in the know and those that are interested in the creative industry, the music, the literature and fashion for example, are having a more sophisticated understanding of Nigeria, the people and the talents you see here. This is why you see so many people are interested in partnerships with Nigeria and indeed, we see a lot of interests in partnering Nigerian companies in the city of London, which is the centre of our financial and professional services.

I think my message is one of positive message, positive sentiment about this country. We are well aware of the challenges. They are significant challenges we must not shy away from and we must be committed to working with the government of Nigeria across all of these challenges, and they are not insurmountable challenges if there is the political will to address them, because we are full of the belief that Nigeria has the capacity to tackle those challenges.