There has been a lot of excitement in the press today after a cameraman caught David Cameron on tape insulting visiting dignitaries, in conversation with the Queen, Speaker of the House of Commons and Archbishop of Canterbury. The Prime Minister was talking about this week’s anti-corruption summit, which he is hosting tomorrow, in London.
Cameron’s comment, “We’ve got some leaders of some fantastically corrupt countries coming to Britain… Nigeria and Afghanistan, possibly the two most corrupt countries in the world,” sounded like a strange sort of celebration. For a summit focused on corruption, he did indeed have political leaders with great experience on the topic attending – corruption heavy-weights if you like.
However, an aide to President Buhari of Nigeria said Cameron’s comment was shocking and embarrassing, while the Afghan embassy in London said the remark was “unfair”.
At the time, the Queen did not comment but adopted a bemused and surprised expression before the farce continued. Dr Justin Welby responded almost immediately, noting that “This particular president is not corrupt… he’s trying very hard,” to which John Bercow made a half-hearted attempt at delivering a punchline: “They are coming at their own expense, one assumes?”
This all might seem like a terrible Christmas cracker joke, and certainly not the most diplomatic thing a Prime Minister could say. But however unguarded the remarks were, they were not untrue. Both Afghanistan and Nigeria come high on lists of the world’s most corrupt nations: in Transparency International’s 2015 corruption perception index, Afghanistan was ranked at 167, ahead of only Somalia and North Korea; Nigeria was at 136.
Buhari suggested that Mr Cameron must be referring to Nigeria’s past notoriety for corruption, before his coming to power last year. His hurt and frustration is understandable. He was elected to power on a campaign that was centered around its vow to root out corruption.
This is no small task. Since Buhari came to power anti-fraud agencies have arrested several senior politicians accused of embezzlement. But Salaudeen Hashim, from the West Africa Civil Society Forum, told Al Jazeera that corruption and money laundering are direct causes of poverty in Nigeria:
“You see poverty staring at you on the street – simply because money that is meant to stimulate the economy is being used by individuals to build homes [in London], to take care of their own immediate families. All of this going on, at the expense of the people.”
The Nigeria Guardian reported in 2015:
“Until President Olusegun Obasanjo [President of Nigeria from 1999- 2007] began his crusade against corruption via the Anti-Corruption law, ‘Welcome to the country of corruption’ would have been an appropriate inscription at Nigeria’s international airports.”
The usual defence of the small offender is to blame corruption on the extended family system, which puts heavy demands on meagre earnings, but when it comes to the scale of graft by those at the top echelons of government it is nothing but greed. The civil war (1967-70) and the oil wealth during the Gowon era (July 1966-July 1975) were catalysts for the endemic official corruption in Nigeria. It was an era of “boom” for soldiers and their surrogates who masqueraded as contractors.
Statistics from Transparency International found that in Nigeria, 94% of people claimed their political parties were corrupt, the most in the world. Other notable and upsetting statistics were:
Percent saying corruption very serious: 78%
Percent claiming public officials corrupt: 69% (28th highest)
Percent claiming police corrupt: 92% (tied for 4th highest)
In Nigeria, 84% of those surveyed claimed corruption had increased in the past two years, and troublingly, 75% also said the government was, at best, ineffective at fighting corruption, worse than in all but 10 countries. In 2012, Nigeria had just the 37th largest GDP in the world, despite having the world’s seventh largest population.
More recently, top Nigerian officials, including Bukola Saraki, the President of the Nigerian Senate, have been named in the Panama Papers. It is alleged Saraki has an undeclared £5.7 million property in London, in his wife’s name. This raised concerns about how it was possible to hide undeclared wealth in the UK property market.
In a stinging letter to Cameron last month, 95 reform groups in Nigeria urged the UK to do more to prevent corrupt officials from laundering stolen money through the UK’s property market. They wrote:
“Despite natural endowments of abundant oil wealth, the country’s infrastructure is deplorable. Classrooms overflow while teachers go underpaid and parents are forced to give “gifts” to ensure their children get attention; police officers spend their time shaking down motorists or locking them up on some spurious pretext so as to extort a few naira.”
No surprise that Buhari’s campaign, in which he defined corruption as the greatest form of human rights violation, caused the people of Nigeria to participate with unparalleled energy in the 2015 presidential election.
Cameron later agreed with the Archbishop of Canterbury that President Buhari of Nigeria is not corrupt himself and is trying very hard to tackle the problem. A spokesperson for Welby, who has worked in Nigeria when as an oil executive, said that he had no particular view but supported the summit “to combat corruption in all walks of life”. (Presumably Welby included this in discussion with Robert Mugabe last month before they prayed for the future of Zimbabwe together.)
As The Times reports, Downing Street was trying last night to limit the damage to tomorrow’s summit on global corruption after the PM singled out Afghanistan and Nigeria. Asked whether Cameron regretted his comments, a Downing Street spokesman said: “Both leaders have been invited to the summit because they are driving the fight against corruption in their countries. The UK stands shoulder to shoulder with them as they do so.”
In a way, Nigeria and Afghanistan could count themselves lucky. Panama has not been invited to the anti-corruption summit at all, despite being at the centre of the offshore finance scandal.
President Buhari has helped Cameron out, saying he does not want an apology from the British PM for calling his country “fantastically corrupt”. Instead, he said Britain could return assets stolen by officials who fled to London.
Cameron’s official spokesman hinted that the Prime Minister might have realised he was being filmed this time. “The cameras were very close to him. There were multiple cameras in the room,” he said. His demeanour at PMQs today did not seem particularly embarrassed or apologetic. Equally, the ‘gaff’ has had the spectacular effect of getting his anti-corruption summit very firmly in the headlines. Speaking ahead of the summit, Mr Cameron had said:
“For too long there has been a taboo about tackling this issue head-on. The summit will change that. Together we will push the fight against corruption to the top of the international agenda where it belongs.”
The Prime Minister’s comments could raise questions about aid payments to both countries, given that the UK spent £237m in Nigeria in 2014 and £198m in Afghanistan. Indeed, the question was asked during PMQs today, to which Cameron said the UK would not cease to send aid to the countries, stressing that British aid money to Nigeria and Afghanistan is not paid directly to either government. Downing Street has also pointed out that both Buhari and Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, had admitted to wide-scale problems in their countries.
In terms of providing light relief from the EU referendum, we thank the Prime Minister. The government will host world and business leaders at the summit tomorrow, aiming to “galvanise a global response to tackle corruption”.