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Sun, Nov 23, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Anti-corruption group finds stalwart supporter in Obasanjo

Transparency International has for years been an active campaigner in recovering plundered assets with the Nigerian president's assistance


When Transparency International (TI), the Berlin-based research and advocacy body was created a decade ago to battle worldwide corruption, one of its founding members was Nigeria's current president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Since then, Obasanjo's interest in TI's gobal anti-corruption campaigns has multiplied, reflecting his own stated aversion to bribery and graft in Nigeria.

His administration since 1999 has introduced a series of institutional and structural measures, signaling a new attitude to governance.

"Obasanjo was TI's most active and committed advisory council member in its early years," claims Jeremy Pope, a former TI executive, who first met him in South Africa during negotiations aimed at ending Apartheid in the mid-1980s.

"I remember him saying to people that where corruption is concerned everyone is a sinner, nobody can claim sainthood."

It was his response to local grumbles about industrial countries ignoring "the rot in their own backyards," and the bribe-paying activities of multinational firms headquartered in their own countries.

Contacts were especially close between 1994 and 1996 when TI was in its infancy and Obasanjo, a former general, had quit being a chicken farmer to head the "African Leadership Forum" in Nigeria, training emerging African leaders.

"He helped us evaluate and coordinate our anti-corruption policies throughout that period," recalls Pope.

This month Transparency International, whose head office is located opposite the Charlottenburg district town hall in Berlin, has been celebrating its tenth anniversary in Berlin, with Obasanjo along as a star guest.

A non-profit organization, TI was established in 1993 by Peter Eigen who was alarmed by the rapid spread of global corruption while working in Africa and Latin America as a World Bank program director in the 1970s and 80s.

Disillusioned that nothing was being done to combat it, Eigen quit the World Bank to set up TI. It's mandate?

"Rid Society of Corruption," which Eigen defined early on as, "the misuse of public power for private gain."

Eigen is indebted to the Nigerian leader. And Obasanjo is more than grateful to TI.

Jailed by Nigeria's former corrupt military regime in 1996 on a trumped up charge of planning a coup, it was TI that spearheaded the wave of international protest leading to his release.

Soon afterwards, he flew to Berlin to personally thank Eigen and his 35-member-strong staff.

"They refused to let me languish in prison. I owed my liberation to them and possibly my life," he would say later.

Backed by Obasanjo, Transparency International's national chapters have for years been zealously demanding the repatriation of assets plundered by former dictators and stashed away in bank accounts in London, Zurich, New York and Lichtenstein

For his part, the Nigerian president has called for the "active cooperation" of western governments when demanding the return of misappropriated funds.

"It is not enough to accuse developing countries of corruption.

The western world must demonstrate practical commitment to assist us by repatriating monies that have been stolen from our treasuries and hidden in their financial institutions," he maintains.

Such appeals have had some affect. Roughly US$1.2 billion in funds stolen from Nigeria by the late dictator Sani Abacha were recovered last year.

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