President Olusegun Obasanjo has fired his Labour Minister, Hussaini Akwanga, over allegations that he took bribes to approve the award of a major government contract to a French electronics group. He is the first cabinet casualty in Obasanjo's four-year-old anti-corruption drive.
The federal government said in a statement on Thursday that Akwanga had been relieved of his post "in line with this administration’s commitment to transparency and to protect the integrity" of the government.
The French electronics company SAGEM won a US $214 million contract two years ago to produce national identity cards for Nigeria. Akwanga was the top bureaucrat in the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the time. He and several other officials are alleged to have taken large bribes to approve the deal.
As Akwanga was sacked, Nigeria's Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) announced that it had launched a probe into the SAGEM contract in which the role of Akwanga, former interior minister Sunday Afolabi, his then deputy Mahmud Shatta and a number of other leading figures in the ruling People’s Democratic Party would be investigated.
This is the first major investigation conducted by the ICPC, which was set up by Obasanjo shortly after his election to the presidency in 1999.
The former army general has pledged to rid Nigeria of widespread graft, which is seen as a major obstacle hindering the development in Africa’s leading oil producer and most populous country.
Obasanjo was re-elected for another four years in May this year, but the constitution bars him from standing for a third term.
Critics of the president have often described his anti-corruption stance as a charade, pointing out that not a single conviction has been secured since the establishment of the ICPC, despite clear signs that corruption continues unabated in Nigeria.
Announcing the SAGEM investigation, ICPC chairman Mustapha Akanbi told a Commonwealth Business Forum on Thursday that government officials had "collected colossal sums of money in local and foreign currencies" as kick-backs on the contract.
The retired judge said his commission had enough evidence to secure the conviction of the suspects who would be charged in court soon.
At least three people have been arrested in connection with the investigation, including Niyi Adelagun, the man who is believed to have distributed the bribes on behalf of SAGEM.
The Commonwealth Business Forum was part of preliminary activities to the opening of the Commonwealth Head of Government’s Meeting in the capital Abuja this weekend. The summit, attended by Britain's Queen Elizabeth, opened on Friday with 54 leaders from Britain and its former colonies in attendance.
"I find it an unusual coincidence that Obasanjo chose a time when Nigeria was in the spotlight, with so many international visitors around, to fire the minister," said Banji Akerele, a banker and financial analyst. "Certainly there was an intention to give maximum advertisement to this public chastising of a minister over corruption."
He said Obasanjo’s anti-corruption crusade was losing credibility after failing to secure a single conviction in more than four years, and was in dire need of dramatic action to revive it.
"I think this clampdown on corruption inside the government will provide a new impetus to the crusade," said Akerele. "It remains to be seen if it will be sustained or if the situation will return to business-as-usual once the spotlight goes away."