Council on Foreign Relations

By John Campbell

February 29, 2012

This is a guest post by Jim Sanders, a career, now retired, West Africa watcher for various federal agencies. The views expressed below are his personal views and do not reflect those of his former employers.

Reportedly, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has invited World Bank officials to vet all federal government contracts. “Very soon we will get people from the World Bank to be at my office. For every contract we want to award, irrespective of the structures we have on the ground, they will assess it so that if a job is supposed to cost N10,000 and it’s awarded for N10,000, the likelihood that the contractor bribing anybody will be reduced,” Jonathan was quoted as saying.

World Bank Senior Communications Specialist Obadiah Tohomdet has said, however, that Nigeria has not formally contacted the World Bank over the vetting of procurement contracts. Tohomdet termed the scheme “an idea in the making by the President.”

Critics argue that setting up a World Bank contract review desk in the president’s office is “a vote of no confidence in the government.” They point to Jonathan’s failure to inaugurate the National Council on Public Procurement, as authorized by the Public Procurement Act of 2007, and his use of the Federal Executive Council to approve contracts. Osita Okechuckwu of the Conference for Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) stated that Nigerians “don’t need any foreign body to do the work we can successfully do.” Zakari Mohammed, speaking for the House of Representatives, noted that the World Bank experts may be paid in hard currency, which would be “another burden on government.”

Jonathan’s initiative is, in some ways, reminiscent of Liberian president Samuel Doe’s use of American financial experts in 1988-89 to help manage Liberia’s finances. The Opex (Operational Experts) project (pdf) consisted of seventeen experts who were given control over accounts in Liberia’s Ministry of Finance and the National Bank of Liberia. Their mission focused on improving revenue collection, expenditure control, and information processing systems.

The project experienced some success in bringing civil service, military, and pension salaries up to date and increasing revenue. However, after a year, the U.S. and Liberian governments mutually agreed to terminate Opex. Controls were circumvented and policy reform measures were not implemented. President Doe’s lack of commitment to the project proved especially damaging. Doe and his advisers retained control of some public funds outside the Ministry of Finance and would not give Opex access to them, as the funds formed the basis for patronage, power, and wealth.

Jonathan’s proposal appears to limit the World Bank experts’ role to an advisory one, rather than granting them control, yet a domestic backlash may be brewing among Nigerians who view the initiative as impinging on the country’s capabilities and sovereignty.

Removing corruption from procurement contracts also carries the potential to damage officials’ ability to dispense patronage, and is likely to be resisted as much in Nigeria today, as it was in Liberia in the late 1980s. Political systems in which patronage is deeply rooted are difficult to reform in part because of both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ pressures, according to University of Oxford (Jesus College) Professor Nicholas Cheeseman.

Successful politicians’ ability to push reform is limited by their indebtedness to those who have supported them, while at lower levels, people worry that if they stop acting on a patron-client basis, while everyone else continues to do so, they will lose out. “To my mind,” Cheeseman argues, “it is precisely the combination of pressure from above and below [that] is what ensures that patron-client relations are so durable.” While Jonathan’s proposal–reportedly still ideational–to reduce corruption in procurement contracts is commendable, it is likely to be governed by patronage networks’ ‘invisible hand.’