The scale of the task facing Tony Blair in his drive to help Africa was laid bare yesterday when it emerged that Nigeria’s past rulers stole or misused £220 billion.
That is as much as all the western aid given to Africa in almost four decades. The looting of Africa’s most populous country amounted to a sum equivalent to 300 years of British aid for the continent.
The figures, compiled by Nigeria’s anti-corruption commission, provide dramatic evidence of the problems facing next month’s summit in Gleneagles of the G8 group of wealthy countries which are under pressure to approve a programme of debt relief for Africa.
Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, has spoken of a new Marshall Plan for Africa. But Nigeria’s rulers have already pocketed the equivalent of six Marshall Plans. After that mass theft, two thirds of the country’s 130 million people—one in seven of the total African population—live in abject poverty, a third is illiterate and 40 per cent have no safe water supply.
With more people and more natural resources than any other African country, Nigeria is the key to the continent’s success.
Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, set up three years ago, said that £220 billion was “squandered” between independence from Britain in 1960 and the return of civilian rule in 1999.
“We cannot be accurate down to the last figure but that is our projection,” Osita Nwajah, a commission spokesman, said in the capital, Abuja.
The stolen fortune tallies almost exactly with the £220 billion of western aid given to Africa between 1960 and 1997. That amounted to six times the American help given to post-war Europe under the Marshall Plan.
British aid for Africa totalled £720 million last year. If that sum was spent annually for the next three centuries, it would cover the cost of Nigeria’s looting.
Corruption on such a scale was made possible by the country’s possession of 35 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. That allowed a succession of military rulers to line their pockets and deposit their gains mainly in western banks.
Gen Sani Abacha, the late military dictator, stole between £1 billion and £3 billion during his five-year rule.
“We are only now beginning to come to grips with some of what he did,” Mr Nwajah said.
Nigeria has scoured the world for Abacha’s assets but has recovered only about £500 million.
Olusegun Obasanjo, the current president, founded the commission and launched a crackdown on corruption to try to end the country’s reputation as Africa’s most venal. The figures all apply to the period before he came to power.
The amount of money involved has prompted the Government to seek ways to enhance Britain’s ability to help developing countries recover stolen funds. In the autumn the Government will introduce legislation to pave the way for British ratification of the United Nations convention against corruption.
A money laundering directive agreed by EU finance ministers this month will impose new responsibilities on banks, casinos and other establishments to be more alert to signs of corruption. They will be expected to help stamp out financial abuse by high-risk customers in a position to abuse public office for private gain.
Mr Obasanjo will travel to the G8 summit to press the case for debt relief. Nigeria is Africa’s biggest debtor, with loans of almost £20 billion, because previous rulers not only looted the country but also borrowed heavily against future oil revenues.
The G8 has refused to cancel Nigeria’s loans, despite writing off the debts of 14 other African countries this month.
Prof Pat Utomi, of Lagos Business School, said that was the right decision. “Who is to say you won’t see the same behaviour again if it is all written off?” he said.