'No Longer a Way of Life'

Nigeria has the dubious honor of being one of the most corrupt countries on earth. From petty bureaucrats to top-level officials, graft has always been rampant in the largest nation in Africa with its 137 million people. But Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo is aiming to change all that. The 68-year-old has started an anti-corruption drive that has shocked officials in his oil-rich country. His initiative has forced the nation's education minister, housing minister, top police official and the Senate president to leave their jobs and, in several cases, to face criminal charges.

In addition to fighting corruption, Obasanjo--as chairman of the African Union--is working to stabilize Sudan's troubled Darfur region. He's also trying to convince the international community to forgive his country's $35 billion in debt, answer criticism that he should turn over Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, who has been indicted by a U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes, and lobby for Nigeria to get a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. Obasanjo spoke to NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant about developments in the region.

NEWSWEEK: Is the African Union overstretched in Darfur? Do you need U.N. or NATO forces to step in and help out or can you handle it alone?

Olesegun Obasanjo: This is very much something that the AU can handle alone. The problem of Darfur for us is not a problem of availability of troops. It is a problem of logistics. If you are going to put troops into the field you have to properly kit them. They have to be properly equipped and clothed. Some of the countries that would be ready to contribute troops need that type of logistical backing. The international community understands this. The U.S. and NATO and European Union have assured us that logistical requirements will be provided for us to be able to put additional troops in Darfur. Now we are assured they'll provide everything from the helmets to the boots.

So you feel the U.S. and world community is doing enough?

That's right.

You're leading an anti-corruption drive in your country, but Nigeria is still ranked third in corruption by Transparency International. Are you succeeding?

It's ranked No. 3 only by perception.

Still, why is it so difficult to tackle this problem in Nigeria? You've been in power for many years and this campaign is only now gaining strength. Is this happening a little bit late?

No, I don't agree. I feel we have to take it into perspective. The first bill that was sent to the National Assembly was the bill now called the Anti-Corruption Bill. I sent it within the first 10 days of my taking over. That bill was not passed into law until well over a year [later]. When that bill was passed into law some people even challenged it in the courts as unconstitutional. With that bill in place now we're working towards something ... I'll say the required preparation was made and therefore the ground was prepared. The foundation was laid. And that is why able to move forward now. Still, corruption is very hard to prove.

How big of a role does corruption play in Nigerian politics and society?

I would say up until now it's been very pervasive. I won't say that we've eliminated corruption, but I will say that it's no longer a way of life. We still have a long way to go. What is important is that what we're doing now should be sustained.

Some critics have said that this anti-corruption campaign has targeted some of your political opponents.

Is my inspector-general of police my political opponent? Is the president of the Senate, who I worked very hard to put into position and who belongs to my party a political opponent? Is my minister of education my political opponent? Those who are saying that are talking rubbish. And I wonder why you have to ask that question. Our anti-corruption campaign is blind. It will hit anybody, friend or foe. It's like justice.

Does that make you unpopular among certain layers of government to be pushing this? How difficult is this for you politically?

I made it clear that things would not be business as usual. Some people didn't take me seriously [at first], but I think now they're taking me seriously. It will not be business as usual. And I didn't go into government for a popularity contest. I went into government to do a job as I believe it should be done.

What about Nigeria's $35 billion debt? Would debt relief help your country?

I believe the international community, particularly the major creditors, are conscious of the need to grant us relief. The relief issue, as far as debt is concerned for Nigeria, is no longer an issue. It is how, when, and how much. It is very important.

What will happen to your country if you don't get debt relief?

Nigeria will continue to exist, but we won't be able to do some of the things that we will want to do in the area of development. I have no doubt we'll be given debt relief.

Do you honestly think you can recoup the huge sums of money that have been lost to corruption in recent years?

We have been recouping. If you look at property we've regained, and cash we've already regained internally, it will not be less than $2.5 billion already.

[Former Liberian leader] Charles Taylor has been given asylum in your country. But the U.N.-backed court for Sierra Leone is charging him with several counts of human-rights abuses and officials say that he still meddling in politics while in exile--that he's tried to stage a coup in Guinea as well as stay involved in politics in his own country. Is it time for him to be handed over?

First of all I do not know how many charges he has been indicted for. Second, if you allege that he's been involved in anything you have to show it, you have to prove it. Anybody can allege anything. And thirdly, there were certain circumstances and certain conditions, certain undertakings, if you'd like, before Charles Taylor was taken to Nigeria. It was not a Nigerian affair. It was a West African, African Union and European Union affair. This was an African and international community issue and we consulted the United States, who granted us a green light [to offer asylum] without conditions. The British also--without conditions. The U.N.--without conditions. Memories may be short. But if we had not taken Charles Taylor out there would be a bloodbath in Liberia now. It's not just Liberia alone--it's Sierra Leone, Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast] and Guinea--because they are all interconnected.

Do you deal with him often?

He might have come to see me a couple of times.

What is your relationship like?

If he has anything to talk about he comes to tell me. And if there is anything I can do to help him, I do. [Pause.] He's my guest.

Can you tell me a bit about the role of women in your anti-corruption drive?

We brought women into an area where we've never had women before--not particularly in anti-corruption per se. Dora Akunyili [head of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC)] works in what is like your Food and Drug Administration and they are fighting against fake drugs and unhygienic or contaminated food--which is a sort of corruption. They handle that wonderfully well. Just recently, we just appointed a woman to the Supreme Court for the first time. Our minister of finance and junior minister of finance are women.

What is the most important psychological aspect of this anti-corruption drive?

What is important is that Nigerians must know that if you do [accept bribes] and you are caught, you are in for a high jump. What is bad, if you are fighting a crime, is if the criminal believes he can get away with it. That if he's caught he believes he can plead his way out of it. Once everybody knows that it doesn't matter who you are or where you are--if you are caught you are in for a high jump. There is no getting off.

Should Nigeria get a permanent seat in the Security Council if U.N. reform makes new seats available?

Yes. Nigeria, by virtue of its composition, reforms and diversity is poised to take its rightful place in Africa and among the nations of the world.