In Nigeria, corruption roots in local governments

AP News
Posted: Oct 22, 2011 11:48 AM
In Nigeria, corruption roots in local governments

Trumpets and car horns sound first, then local gang members rush by screaming and chugging cheap liquor as a convoy of campaign vehicles push through the crowded streets of Nigeria's main city carrying local candidates asking to represent the people in a system rife with corruption.

Races to run Nigeria's 774 local governments represent politics at its rotten core in the oil-rich nation, where crude sales prop up politicians and the neighborhood councils become their personal fiefdoms. Those living in the megacity of Lagos voted Saturday for their local representatives, but the results appeared to be a foregone conclusion as political fortunes are made and lost based on personality and muscle in Africa's most populous nation.

"I know they will change, (but) there's nothing we can do if they don't change," said B.G. Said, a 62-year-old voter who waited at a polling place that opened two-and-a-half hours late Saturday.

Nigeria inherited local governments from British colonialists and kept the system in place after gaining independence in 1960. Little changed under Nigeria's military dictatorships and when democracy took hold in 1999. The governments, run by council members and overseen by a chairman, remain responsible for road maintenance, sewage systems and markets, as well as assisting in health care and education in their areas.

Yet even on Ikoyi Island in Lagos, which once housed the nation's federal government, potholed roads with little asphalt run past some of the most expensive real estate in all of Africa. Public schools remain dilapidated and overcrowded. Passers-by relieve themselves in open drains.

Area chairman Wale Adeniji, running for re-election under Lagos' ruling Action Congress of Nigeria, said his administration worked hard in its last three-year term. However, when interviewed this week by The Associated Press, Adeniji struggled to offer any specific improvements completed by his administration. He also repeatedly declined to say how much money his area received from the state as part of the federal funds allocated to local governments.

Still, as he campaigned and met with the public, no one asked him specific questions. Many surrounded him chanting the party's acronym ACN, and youths offered shouts of "Well done, sir!"

Adeniji is one of the "Big Men," the "oga" in the local language, smiling amid the squalor and broken streets, asking once again to represent a people who long ago gave up on the government.

At a crowded local market near an army barracks, Adeniji made no promises of improving services when speaking to elders there. His entourage passed out gift bags filled with notebooks and unmarked boxes. Others received shirts and caps bearing his image.

"We will vote for ACN this Saturday," market leader Jokotade Logun Tairat promised after hearing Adeniji describe the voting process in her sweltering, dark office.

But she hinted at the tit-for-tat politics of the country: "We are like Oliver Twist: we keep asking for more. Please don't forget us."

Such exchanges, whether monetary or for favors later, remain common in local politics, said Foluso Idumu, the program coordinator for the Orderly Society Trust, which advocates for better governance in Nigeria.

State-level officials put trusted lieutenants or lackeys into local governments, who tailor their opinions and operations to suit their political "godfathers," Idumu said. Those who don't obey lose out on unmonitored government money, while those who follow orders end up with SUVs, she said.

Idumu's organization had to abandon a grant-funded effort to honor innovative local government leaders when a survey of more than 70 areas found no one worthy of the award.

"It's a national malaise, really," Idumu said. "We really still don't have democratic principles being adhered to and followed duly."

Opposition candidates, even for the nationally dominant People's Democratic Party, rarely campaign for office in ACN-dominated Lagos. On Ikoyi Island, the national party's candidate Ibrahim Babajide Obanikoro bucked the trend, campaigning one day with a host of buses, cars and motorcycles following him.

At one stop, many young, unemployed men known as "area boy" gang members drank from bottles of local liquor and jostled in close enough to touch the candidate.

"As you can see, I'm a man of the people," Obanikoro told the AP. "They have access to me and all the time they have my back."

Some of those men in the crowd attended Adeniji's campaign the day before.

On Saturday, voters waited on one rubbish strewn dirt road in Lagos Island, the commercial hub of the city, waiting to vote amid water-filled potholes. Nearly all said they voted for ACN and seemed content with the party.

"ACN is doing this democracy well well," said Risikat Jinadu, 63. "They are trying."

Many support the party for its most prominent politician, Lagos state Gov. Babatunde Raji Fashola, who they say is responsible for many of the improvements seen in the once crime-ridden city. Yet Fashola himself cast his ballot Saturday in front of a worn grammar school in his Surulere neighborhood, where daylight peeked through holes in the ceiling and worn wooden benches sat among litter on the cement floors.

Asked about local leaders being unable to even say how much government money they receive, Fashola told the AP: "That's no reason to make the conclusion he has 'chopped' the money, if he couldn't tell you why."

Still, the run-up to Saturday's election remains likely the only contact many in the Lagos public will have with their local leaders. Surveys by the Orderly Society Trust suggest more than half of the nation can name at the most one or two of those leaders, if any at all.



The Orderly Society Trust:


Jon Gambrell can be reached at