Nigeria's Buhari pledges to recover billions lost to corruption

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to investigate and recover billions of dollars in funds allegedly misused or stolen by previous government officials, accusing past administrations of throwing the economic rulebook "to the dogs".

The Nigerian leader, elected in March earlier this year in a landmark victory over Goodluck Jonathan, made the vow yesterday at a meeting with all of the country's 36 state governors at his presidential palace in the capital, Abuja.

The meeting was held by Buhari in a bid to reassure the governors that he will recover funds for their state coffers in order to pay state salaries that have gone upaid for months. It also offered the governors an opportunity to request more funds for their respective regions, who claim they are collectively 658 billion naira (€2.96bn) in debt.

Buhari admitted on Monday that the Nigerian treasury is "virtually empty" after 16 years under the rule of Jonathan's People's Democratic Party (PDP), in a briefing to reporters ahead of the meeting.

"There are financial and administrative instructions in every government parastatal and agency. But all these were thrown to the dogs," Buhari said in a statement released after meeting with the governors.

"The next three months may be hard but billions of dollars can be recovered, and we will do our best," he said. "We will restore sanity to the system."

Buhari, 72, said the fact that government workers had not been paid for months, some for as many as nine months, was a disgrace, condemning the "bad management" of the previous administration. "We really need your help to protect us from people before they march on us," he told journalists before the meeting.

Buhari has already commissioned vice-president Yemi Osinbajo to create a committee which will oversee a potential bailout for the states as many are near to financial collapse, says Imad Mesdoua, political analyst at the Africa-focused consultancy Africa Matters. Osinbajo has estimated that the Nigerian deficit stands at $60bn (€53.6bn) after being sworn into office three weeks ago.

While Buhari's pledge to the governors of Nigeria may be well-intentioned, there remains a number of obstacles that stand in the way of retrieving the money, says Mesdoua. "I don't doubt for a second that there is a genuine desire to get the wasted and stolen money back," he says. "Whether that can be achieved in terms of technical capacity, in terms of political capital, and the time it will require, remains to be seen.

"The obstacles that do exist are there, not because there is a lack of political will, but because of structural and circumstantial impediments," he adds. "How Buhari and his team frame and communicate the effort to recover these funds, in political terms, is very important."

The PDP had won every election in Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1999 and was the favourite heading into the 28 March election earlier this year after 16 years in power. However, Buhari defeated the incumbent president in what was the country's first ever democratic change of power to an opposition party.

He rode into power on a pledge to mend a country rife with corruption and an economy dependent on crude oil. The country's economy has been shaken by the halving of oil prices since the middle of 2014 as it relies on crude for approximately 90% of its revenues.

A government spokesman was not immediately available for comment.