Foreign Policy Blogs

Cameron’s Anti-Corruption Summit: A First Step in a Long Road

One might have expected British Prime Minister David Cameron, the host of last week’s anti-corruption summit in London, to have been a bit more cautious when speaking of the “fantastically corrupt” countries whose leaders were his guests. Cameron’s comments about Nigeria and Afghanistan were caught on tape as he described them—to the Queen, no less—as “possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world.”

Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, was shocked and embarrassed according to media and staff reports, but declined to ask for an apology, pointedly stressing that he would rather see recovered the many tangible assets hidden away by his countrymen in the UK.

For all the diplomatic drama—since, not to be outdone, Queen Elizabeth was caught on tape insulting the Chinese too—the anti-corruption summit moved forward with representatives of some 40 nations present and with Buhari delivering the keynote address. A final twist occurred when The Economist reported there had been speculation that Cameron’s indiscretion was actually intentional, designed to stir up additional media interest in the otherwise staid summit talks.

International cooperation in the fight against corruption

By most accounts, the summit was a good first step toward international cooperation on transparency and toward cobbling together a coordinated effort to target secretive tax havens and offshore financial arrangements tied to illegal activities. Of the 40 attending nations, ten are EU members.

These European participants are now looking to shut down the anonymous shell companies used for money laundering by developing registers of the true business owners involved. While Ireland will consider it, France, the U.K. and the Netherlands have pledged to make those registries public—albeit some of the U.K.’s overseas territories, like the British Virgin Islands, will not be forced to come clean.

Additionally, five EU nations pledged to increase transparency on corporate tax compliance, while the summit further addressed corruption in negotiating and awarding EU public contracts, protections for whistleblowers, and seizure penalties.

However, the fact that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry managed to shift attention away from America’s notoriously secretive states of Delaware, Nevada or South Dakota prompted many to argue that the West is more interested in pointing fingers at developing countries than addressing its own shortfalls. Looking ahead, participants agreed to hold a forum next year on asset recovery, one that will focus on assistance for challenged nations such as the “fantastically corrupt” Nigeria.

Nigeria and the culture of corruption

For his part, Buhari’s remarks referred to corruption as a “hydra-headed monster” that cannot be reined in without a coordinated effort. He detailed how four different Nigerian agencies are pursuing corruption investigations in a bid to respect his campaign promises from 2015. Buhari also addressed human rights issues in Nigeria’s fight against corruption, as well as the problem of oil theft, estimated at 150,000 barrels a day. The extent of Nigeria’s problem is reflected by data provided in the annual Transparency International index, which ranked the nation at 136 of the 168 countries evaluated.

Buhari, however, has so far failed to deliver on his lofty campaign promises to root out Nigeria’s endemic corruption. After a remarkably slow start to his term, which saw the country running without an appointed cabinet between May and November 2015, Buhari came under fire for using international aid money earmarked for cracking down on Boko Haram to fund a witch hunt against opposition politicians.

Indeed, according to reports, the nascent anti-corruption campaign has been targeting political enemies of the regime, raising fears that Buhari, a former military dictator in the 80s, is returning to his autocratic ways.

Beyond the shining example Buhari set for the wider region showing that democratic transitions can indeed be possible in Sub-Saharan Africa, Nigerians are not faring any better.

The president who once claimed he could singlehandedly stabilize world oil prices is being sapped by a period of high inflation that has driven food prices higher, while the inefficient power grid and infrastructure are dragging down the embattled Nigerian economy. Improving just the grid would boost the country’s economy by a whopping 14%, but the process is stalled because of rent seeking and graft.

What’s most troubling though is the vicious circle of corruption in Nigerian society: the elites who avail themselves of the country’s assets cause the very suffering that they are then supposed to alleviate. The poverty rate among rural households has grown to some 80 % on the back of tumbling oil prices in an economy that has failed to properly diversify.

The ongoing conflicts with Boko Haram in the northeast—itself fueling, and fueled by, Nigeria’s corruption—and the unrest from Biafrans in the south contribute to the nation’s climate of instability.

Everything considered, Nigeria is one of the most revealing examples of the pitfalls of corruption, the way it warps and drags down the entire economic potential of a nation.

When coupled with incompetent leadership, the only hope for Nigerians would be for this year’s anti-corruption summit to yield practical results. A list of individuals hiding wealth in London’s ridiculously overpriced property market and laundering corruption proceeds through the U.K.’s overseas territories would be a good start, both for Nigeria and David Cameron.