Nigeria Reacts to Jefferson Corruption Case

The Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA) corruption case turns, in part, on Jefferson's pledge to bribe an official in Nigeria. Renee Montagne talks to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about how the news is playing in Nigeria, a country infamous for its high-level corruption.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And here's something else that FBI affidavit said about Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson. It claimed that the payments to him were part of an international business deal. The money was to be passed on to a high-ranking official in Nigeria. That official was supposed to make sure the business deal succeeded.

Corruption is a nearly catastrophic problem in Nigerian business and government. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital.

And is this particular case getting any notice there in Nigeria?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Well, it made the front page of at least four newspapers yesterday, saying that the FBI clears Atiku - Atiku being the Vice President of Nigeria - of financial misdeed. And on the front page of The Nigerian tribune this morning: U.S. indicts Atiku's wife in corruption scandal; talking about this very story, and then proceeds to say nothing about it. So yes, it is getting attention, but it's not the talk of the town.

MONTAGNE: And the Nigerian official named?

QUIST-ARCTON: Unnamed. But the vice president's house in Potomac was raided, I believe at the same as Congressman Jefferson's loft here, where his wife Jennifer lives. So the story does have some resonance here in Nigeria, where, of course, corruption is endemic.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, we were having some fun with American corruption, the whole history of American corruption, but as you say, corruption is endemic in Nigeria, a huge problem. The government there is taking it seriously.

QUIST-ARCTON: It says it is. It has even set up agencies, anti-corruption agencies, to look into the problem, which is meant to be netting the big fish; because, of course, Nigeria has very rich pickings.

In Africa, it's the number one producer of petroleum, and it's thought of as one of the big economies, one of the heavyweight economies. But there's corruption on a grand scale and corruption on a petty scale at all levels of government institutions and in ordinary life.

We heard color about how corruption happens in the U.S. Here, its still low-tech. Money is handed over, either in the ball of the palm, slipped into a passport; you name it - it happens.

MONTAGNE: And Nigeria is, of course, the world's - one of the world's largest oil producers, the eighth largest. How does corruption affect the oil industry, which is international?

QUIST-ARCTON: Everybody says the rich pickings, the fact that oil means such big money, means that those who get involved in it, it's always a temptation to cream off contracts they're called here. And that's not just the production of oil, but we're talking about infrastructure. Nigeria has terrible infrastructure. We're talking about telecommunications. We're talking about construction: everything to do with oil and every thing to do with an emerging economy.

MONTAGNE: Well, Ofeibea have you had to pay anyone off in the last week or two?

QUIST-ARCTON: It's not something that I should admit over the air, Renee. I have certainly had to do it in the past. You know, here, it's not called corruption, it's not called bribery - it's called dash. Somebody does you a little favor, helps you a little, you slip them a little something. It's very much part of life here; it happens all the time.

But it's the big fish, those who are creaming off millions of dollars, that, Nigerians say, must be caught. Stop going for the small fry; go for the ones who are really ripping off the nation.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea, thanks very much.

That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Lagos, Nigeria.

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