NIGERIANS know what to expect when they approach police checkpoints. “How can you appreciate me?” ask officers, AK-47s dangling languidly from their shoulders.
“Happy weekend!” say security guards from the early hours of Friday morning. Or simply: “What do you have for me?” Nigeria, as David Cameron, Britain’s former prime minister, pointed out, is “fantastically corrupt”.
In Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, it is 31st from the bottom. Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, wants to change this. How is he doing?
Few doubt Mr Buhari’s intent. But the task he has set himself is Herculean. Successive military and civilian governments have siphoned money from the vast revenues of their oil industry, says The Economist.
Many locals think the problem reached unprecedented heights under the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan.
In March 2016, an official audit found that the state-owned oil company withheld over $25 billion from the public purse between 2011 and 2015.
Meanwhile cartels involving government officials, militants and oil employees stole tens of thousands of barrels of crude each day. A savings account was drained, although oil prices were high for most Mr Jonathan’s tenure. And money which was supposed to arm soldiers against Boko Haram insurgents was squandered: the vice-president recently estimated that the previous regime diverted $15 billion through dodgy arms contracts.
Since Mr Buhari came to power in May 2015, dozens of public officials and their cronies have been arrested by a beefed-up Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
The most famous of those, the former national security adviser Sambo Dasuki, is charged with dishing out $2 billion worth of fake contracts for helicopters, aeroplanes and ammunition. Under new management, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation has grown slightly less opaque: it now publishes monthly financial reports.
Shady “swap” contracts which trade crude oil for refined petrol have been renegotiated and the worst of the last regime’s oil deals are under scrutiny.
The chairman of one local company, Atlantic Energy, was arrested last year, shortly after the ex-petroleum minister was arrested in London.
In all, the government claims to be recovering about $10 billion of stolen assets (though most of those will be tied up in court for years). It has also cancelled a fuel-subsidy racket which, at its peak, cost Nigerians $14 billion a year.
Mr Buhari’s government has been learning from other crusading countries, such as Georgia. But not everyone is impressed.
His political opponents, who ruled Nigeria for 16 years until 2015, call the campaign a witch-hunt.
There are reasons to doubt the capacity of the anti-corruption agency—and of the courts—to hold the powerful to account.
The EFCC is yet to send down any of its most influential adversaries, though it is splurging on training for prosecutors.
Most government agencies, including the one that collects taxes, do not make their budgets public. Nor do most state and local governments, which suck up about half of public revenues.
In an effort to fix this, a tenacious finance minister, Kemi Adeosun, has told skint governors that they must make their finances public before they receive a second federal bailout.
She has struck thousands of ghost workers off the public payroll.
Her “treasury single account” may be the biggest coup of all. It replaced a labyrinth of government piggy banks, giving Nigeria more control of its earnings.
Financiers reckon that it could serve as a lesson to others in West Africa as well. The continent’s most famously corrupt country might yet teach others a thing or two about transparency.