LAGOS, Nigeria – Nigeria's anti-corruption agency is unable to challenge the corrupt politicians who cling to power in the oil-rich nation, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Thursday.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has only garnered four convictions against Nigeria's political elite since its creation in 2003, with those found guilty facing little or no prison time, the rights group said.
The international watchdog said that Nigeria must strengthen the commission and its fellow agencies to fight graft in a nation where estimates suggest leaders have stolen as much as $8 billion a year since it became a democracy in 1999.
The group called for an independent investigation into the actions of the commission's current leader, Farida Waziri, over mismanagement and corruption allegations. It also said the country's judges should not hinder prosecutions of suspected corrupt officials, as the commission's own laws allow for speedy trials.
Femi Babafemi, a commission spokesman, said his agency did not challenge any of the facts and figures contained in the Human Rights Watch report. He pointed to the recent prosecution of top bankers as a sign the commission had done its job. However, he said nothing in the report warranted an investigation into Waziri's actions.
The anti-graft agency came into existence only a few years after Nigeria became a democracy following a series of military rulers and failed civilian governments. Its first chief, Nuhu Ribadu, claimed at one point that Africa's most populous nation likely lost more than $380 billion to graft between 1960 and 1999, the country's post-independence period that saw a string of military dictatorships and failed civilian governments.
Theft may also be rising as crude oil prices have spiked in recent years, sending more unaccounted-for cash into one of the top suppliers to the U.S.
Under Ribadu, the agency aggressively pursued suspected government fraud, especially against Nigeria's 36 state governors who control personal fiefdoms fueled by huge sums of federal oil money that rival the budgets of nearby countries. However, the agency trampled on suspects' rights while avoiding targeting the allies of then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, Human Rights Watch said.
The administration of late President Umaru Yar'Adua forced Ribadu from the agency in 2008. Waziri, who took over the commission, has been criticized by U.S. diplomats in leaked cables for being unprepared and for apparently being controlled by politicians. Others have leveled corruption allegations against her and operatives of the commission, though none have been proven.
The commission under Waziri has charged several prominent bankers over the fraud that caused the near-collapse of the country's banks in 2009. It also recently arrested and charged former House Speaker Dimeji Bankole over corruption allegations — the first major strike against the nation's political elite in many months.
Still, prosecutions by the agency have not risen since 2007. Human Rights Watch said the commission's funding tripled during that period.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.