Early this month, Muhammadu Buhari was elected Nigeria’s new president on the twin promise of increasing security and lowering corruption.
With the world focused on countering terrorism, Buhari now has to show that he can also deliver quickly on rooting out political corruption.
Cleaning up political party financing would be a good start. This will show voters that he is determined to take on high-level political interests and lead by example.
Although Boko Haram led the news on Nigeria’s recent elections, it was really money that dominated the polls. Although no one knows exactly how much was spent, indications are that media expenditure alone was $25-million. Expenditure on rallies, hand-outs, bribes and buying votes have been said to be many times that amount.
Nigeria has a history of high election spending. It has been argued that the 2011 election campaign spending explains the 58% increase in car imports just before the elections. The Central Bank of Nigeria expressed fears at the time that the campaign would lead to significant inflationary pressures.
Things were hardly different in this year’s polls. Last September, the Central Bank suspected that spiralling inflation was being exacerbated by politicians amassing war chests in United States dollars. A soaring demand for dollars linked to the election was reported by moneychangers in Abuja and Lagos.
Formally, campaign money goes on posters, media ads and attending rallies. In reality, a lot goes on buying votes. Envelopes of cash distri-buted to voters during the campaign is a common phenomenon, as well as hand-outs, such as bags of rice. Bribes to police and electoral officials have also been reported.
A lot of money is spent earlier on, when no one is looking.
Months before the campaign, during the candidate nomination phase, prospective candidates need to pay large sums of money to secure a party’s backing. To enter the 2015 presidential race, the nomination fee for the All Progressives Congress (APC) was $136 000, and the losing PDP charged $110 000.
The civil society group, Enough is Enough Nigeria, estimated that just the nomination to run for a PDP governor was $54 000 and for the APC $27 000. The price for contesting a senate seat ranged from $15 000 to $20 000 and the House of Representatives about $10 000.
After the exorbitant nomination fees have been paid, candidates have to spend thousands more on securing the vote of party delegates during the party primaries. Only after that the election campaign begins.
To make such investments, running in elections becomes either limited to the rich or to those willing to take out loans that can be recovered once elected, often through the spoils of office.
The increasing influence of money in elections is a pervasive trend around Africa. Economies from Namibia to Uganda and from Ghana to Kenya suddenly pick up speed and experience additional inflation as a result of high campaign spending. Primaries are often the main battleground, since getting a party ticket for an uncontested “safe seat” is the surest way to get into Parliament.
In about half of African countries anonymous donations are legally allowed, which opens doors for black money to be laundered. Nigeria is no exception.
The trend is apparent in the world’s emerging economies. India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico experience opaque electoral spending, and political corruption – one of the main threats to stable governance – is leading to middle-class revolts in many Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries. In recent months, Brazilians have participated in massive anticorruption street protests, and India has voted in a party that has a strong anticorruption agenda.
Buhari would be wise to heed this.
In cleaning up politics, he should start by strengthening the laws that regulate money in elections. He should quickly introduce the most obvious bans, such as one on anonymous donations to candidates and a ban on donations from government-owned companies.
Nigeria furthermore needs to tackle existing donation loopholes. Its $5?000 donation limit for candidates should also be applied to political parties. If not, candidates can spend unlimited amounts, as long as they receive it through the party. A similar loophole needs to be closed by introducing spending limits on parties and candidates.
Second, to ensure transparency, reporting on income and expenditure should start earlier, cover more and be submitted sooner.
Early campaigning this year started with expensive advertising by support groups, similar to the notorious superpolitical action campaigns in the United States. These purportedly independent action groups allow candidates to sidestep the rules on spending and reporting of campaign funds. Reporting should, therefore, include spending by third parties and begin earlier.
Nigeria’s political parties should also hand in their audited income and expenditure reports sooner. Currently parties can do so six months after the elections, when it can become politically impossible to fine or imprison vested incumbents.
All this will need to happen early in the life of the new National Assembly, because its members will find it increasingly difficult to adopt reforms the closer they get to the 2019 elections.
Third, Buhari should give Nigeria’s electoral commission the teeth to enforce strong regulations and apply sanctions. In this year’s elections, as in previous ones, the existing regulations regarding campaign funding were widely ignored by parties and candidates and weakly enforced by the under-resourced electoral commission.
Political will needed
Nigeria is not alone in this respect. The International Institute for Democracy and International Assistance’s 2014 handbook on political finance found that the gap between regulations and enforcement is Africa’s top priority.
Last, all meaningful reform starts with political will. This has to come from the top.
Buhari won elections with the promise to increase transparency and fight corruption. He would do well to start reforming his country’s political spending practices from the outset. Doing so would mean honouring the trust that Nigerians gave their new president to fight corruption with as much fervour as his fight against terrorism.
Sam van der Staak and Sam Jones work for the International Institute for Democracy and International Assistance