A top member of Nigeria’s ruling party has been sentenced to two years in prison for abuse of office, the highest profile conviction of a public official since President Umaru Yar’Adua took office two years ago.
Bode George, chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority from 2001 to 2003, was sentenced along with five other board members after being found guilty of charges including offering contracts beyond their approved limits, court papers showed on yesterday.
George was a former national vice chairman of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and close ally of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, under whose 1999-2007 tenure he became one of Nigeria’s most powerful political figures.
“Persons acknowledged out of millions of Nigerians by the president to be of proven integrity cannot claim ignorance when obviously irregular contracts placed before them were approved by them without question,” Justice Olubunmi Oyewole of a Lagos state High Court said in his ruling.
“It amounts to wilful blindness and must have its consequences.”
The six men said they would appeal their convictions.
Africa’s most populous nation regularly languishes near the bottom of global graft rankings a major disincentive to foreign investors and the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) is regarded as one of its most corrupt public agencies.
Nigeria’s import dependency for everything from refined fuel to sugar and rice means its ports are among the busiest in the region, yet the revenues officially declared by the NPA are often surprisingly low, analysts say.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) brought 68-count charges against the former NPA directors last year.
Yar’Adua took office in May 2007 pledging zero tolerance for corruption but critics say that while some senior officials have been charged, their cases have mostly become bogged down and few have been actually prosecuted or convicted.
Ten former state governors who served under Obasanjo have faced corruption charges but only one has been convicted. The country’s 36 governors wield considerable political and financial power, in some cases running budgets larger than those of neighbouring countries.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Nigeria in August and said it should rank among the world’s most important developing nations but that its reputation for graft undermined its international standing.