Bridget Odeh, a Nigerian market vendor living near the border with Cameroon, knows firsthand the pervasive, day-to-day corruption that afflicts her country. Local tax collectors once demanded her cash payments at extortionate rates and left no paper trail of the money as they pocketed the proceeds. So it was hailed as a victory when Bridget’s community was one of 20 chosen in 2016 for a program called the “No Cheating Machine,” which applies technology that automatically deducts the taxes through a bank-card reader.
Bridget’s experience is precisely the kind of feel-good story that foreign governments – in this case, the U.K. – showcase, when defending their aid commitments to nations whose corruption and human rights violations otherwise dwarf those successes. Development NGOs and states alike celebrate well-intended projects and argue the strategic rationale for them, but they fail to obscure the misery inflicted across sub-Saharan Africa by the repressive regimes and kleptocrats they prop up with their aid. If only British officials had a “no cheating machine” to safeguard the hundreds of millions its Department for International Development, which helped to fund a solution for Bridget, gives the Nigerian government every year.
Despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2015 election promises, Nigeria has failed to make real headway on cleaning up corruption or restoring justice to the deeply divided nation. What’s more, the steady drumbeat of political oppression, human rights violations, and reports of extrajudicial killings by Nigerian authorities is increasing – and it’s time for the West to demand an accounting, lest it be held responsible for the theft and murder.
Raising the alarm on Nigeria’s use of aid funds
The U.K. aid commitment to Nigeria has now ballooned to £860 million directed toward the fight against Boko Haram, but what has Buhari achieved? It’s been two years since British counterterrorism experts, joined by their American counterparts, traveled to Abuja after the Nigerian schoolgirl kidnappings to assist Buhari’s predecessor with plans to defeat the Islamist group. Now, Western officials want an investigation into whether the funds that followed are being diverted toward the suppression of Buhari’s own political opponents; in the year since Buhari took power, a number of the former ruling party’s officials have been imprisoned without charge. The arrests are approved by Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crime Commission, with funding from the very same helpful U.K. agency for development.
American officials are calling it a scandal, and warn that Boko Haram remains unchecked even as Nigeria is becoming a police state and Buhari relentlessly pursues his foes. They may be right, but they’re also complicit in the unfolding catastrophe. Nigeria received nearly $600 million from the United States in 2014, with $8 million of that earmarked for military assistance, putting it among the six African nations listed among the top 10 countries in the world who receive the most direct aid support from the U.S. Worryingly, those already important sums are poised to rise even further after the U.S. government announced it would lift restrictions on weapons sales to Nigeria, despite lingering human rights concerns.
In that fight against Boko Haram, the Nigerian military has abandoned all pretense of protecting human rights. Amnesty International reports that babies and children are dying in detention camps where no proof of Boko Haram affiliation is necessary for authorities to incarcerate thousands of people – of whom an estimated 7,000 have died since 2011.
What the West is actually buying is a humanitarian crisis. More than 2.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes in the north, where incessant fighting has disrupted trade and agriculture, leaving 50,000 people to starve. Meanwhile, security continues to deteriorate in the south, according to the International Crisis Group. Clashes between Nigerian authorities and Biafran separatists at the end of May resulted in deaths in several southeastern cities. Elsewhere, Nigerians say their pleas to end the chronic violence of the Fulani herdsmen fall on deaf ears. New extremist groups are emerging, including the Niger Delta Avengers who claimed six attacks on Nigeria’s crucial oil infrastructure last month. With the slumping oil economy – and the structural industry corruption in Nigeria – the news that ExxonMobil is under investigation for a lucrative deal planned in Nigeria brought even more dismay.
End funding for yet another authoritarian African regime
With no relief in sight, the U.K. has announced an additional £32 million in humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering in the northeast – this time, to be funneled through the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Still, there are no guarantees that Nigerian officials and local agencies won’t misuse the funds. The Global Fund recently announced it has suspended AIDS funding support after $3.8 million was stolen by Nigerian agency workers, but the far greater loss is to the 1.8 million HIV-positive Nigerians for whom it was earmarked.
The world hoped for better. African development expert Helen Epstein, writing as Buhari took office, said that as long as Buhari honored human rights while ending corruption, Nigeria might reflect a new dawn on a continent scarred by the tyranny of its leaders in the post-colonial era – and, ironically, the Western development aid that “enables African leaders to ignore the demands of their own people, and facilitates the financing of the patronage systems and security machinery that keeps them in power.”
That dawn has not come. More feel-good stories, more money and military aid are destroying Nigeria. So, it appears, is Buhari. It’s time for the West to pull the plug, before its well-intended efforts make another decades-long regime for an African strongman and another opportunity lost to history.
Adjoa Agyeiwaa is a Ghanian-born American national, who went to the University of Maryland, graduating with a degree in history and a masters in international relations with a focus on West African politics.