By SHARON LaFRANIERE
LAGOS, Nigeria - One of Dora Nkem Akunyili's lowest moments as a corruption fighter came about two years ago when her son told her not to visit his boarding school. Obumneme Akunyili, age 13, did not want anyone to know that she was his mother.
It was not out of shame. Since becoming Nigeria's top food and drug regulator in 2001, his mother had broken the back of an illicit trade that had flooded Nigeria with fake medicines. She had taken on importers, distributors and an array of officials willing to risk Nigerian lives for a bribe.
But her son feared what might happen should her enemies track him down. So he told everyone that his mother was an aunt.
In Nigeria, even children understand corruption's menace. Increasingly, so do the donors that have poured more than $300 billion into African nations since 1980 - and watched too much of it vanish into a sinkhole of fraud, malfeasance and waste.
Now the efforts of reformers like Mrs. Akunyili are being scrutinized at meetings where donor countries consider aid to Africa, as leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations will do this week at Gleneagles, Scotland.
The summit meeting has been billed as a turning point for Africa, where the billions have begun to flow again. Foreign aid to the continent reached a 17-year low in 1999, but in May, the richest nations agreed to write off $40 billion in loans owed by the world's 18 poorest countries, all but four of them in Africa.
Perhaps more poignant than the suffering in Africa is the question of what constitutes a `legitimate' government. The third world is routinely raped for the benefit of corporations based in G8 nations. Could these billions in `aid' more accurately be described as payoffs to keep these so-called legitimate governments `pliable' to corporate interests?
Corruption has not only robbed Africa of money to help lift some of the world's poorest people out of poverty. Around the world, it has also stalled economic development and tarnishes people's faith in government and, often, democracy itself.
There's an indictment that hard to ignore. It seems even democratically elected regimes are just as guilty as their totalitarian counterparts of pocketing aid money and turning a blind eye to practices that impoverish the people.
Is there some irony in the fact that the single largest recipient of US foreign aid has been and continues to be Israel? This is a fact, make of it what you will.
The United States has been even more blunt: "Countries like ours are not going to want to give aid to countries that are corrupt or don't hold true to democratic principles," President Bush said last month after meeting with South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki.
That this tough-love approach is rapidly becoming conventional wisdom is one measure of the turnabout in the approach to foreign aid since the cold war, when both sides showered cash on African allies with scant regard to how much was stolen or wasted.
Still, how high to set the good-governance bar - and deciding who clears it - is in the eye of the donor. Jeffrey D. Sachs, a Columbia University economist who wrote a December 2004 report to the United Nations on fighting poverty, said that at least two dozen poor nations, many in Africa, are well-enough run to manage a rapid infusion of aid. The Bush administration's Millennium Challenge Account, set up last year to promote economic growth in poor countries, says just seven impoverished African nations qualify, with another six on the verge.
So what do you think? Aid or payolla? While there is no question these people need help will the third world mirror the first in the fact that the ones who will see the most benefit from these programs are those entrusted to administer them?
How many of you see a `pardon' in the making here?
Yet a May study by the World Bank found that between 1996 and 2004, the quality of governance deteriorated in as many African countries as it improved. Kenya is a painful illustration: a government ushered in two years ago on an anticorruption platform saw its widely respected anticorruption czar quit in frustration in February, apparently because his work was thwarted. The United States and Germany quickly withdrew nearly $10 million in aid.
Whether the new wave of African aid avoids the pitfalls of the past depends not just on its recipients but also on the donors, who have often pushed poorly devised projects, refused to coordinate their efforts or demands with one another and failed to monitor the impact of their largesse.
Foreign aid must be tied to teaching poor nations how to build accountability into their governments, development specialists contend. In some countries, it is not even clear whether the executive branch or the parliament controls the budget, said Steven Radelet, a senior fellow for the Washington-based Center for Global Development. He warned, however, that such improvements typically require generations to take root.
We can't get our elected officials to spend responsibly. What kind of chance do you think a third world nation has? Failing to strike at the root of the problem, which is the system itself, will inevitably fail to solve the problem.
Not including World Bank loans, which in some years totaled as much as $1 billion, Nigeria took in $3.5 billion in aid from 1980 to 2000. That was a few hundred million less than Sani Abacha has been accused in news reports of stealing in the five years he ruled Nigeria as a military dictator before his death in 1998. Dismayed, donors pulled back or out. Aid in 1999 totaled half the 1990 level.
Later audits disclosed scores of botched projects financed with hundreds of millions of dollars in international loans. Nigeria's government never even cleared the site for an $18 million construction project. Millions were spent on paper mills that never produced any paper. Eighteen projects costing $836 million were never completed; another 44 either never operated or were quickly shut down, the Nigerian Finance Ministry reported. Of 20 other projects started between 1985 and 1992, more than half had little impact or were unsustainable, the World Bank concluded. But with the 1999 election of Olusegun Obasanjo, donors' enthusiasm reawakened. Mr. Obasanjo's anticorruption credentials seemed impeccable: he helped found Transparency International, an anticorruption group, and strongly backed a program by African leaders to review each other's adherence to democracy and good governance. Since his election, aid to Nigeria has doubled.
Yet Mr. Obasanjo's first term ended with little progress. "He wanted a second term, and he believed that if he took the anticorruption war too seriously, they would make sure he didn't get a second term," Jibirin Ibrahim, a political scientist and director of Global Rights, a Nigerian pro-democracy group, said of corrupt officials. "Which was a strategic mistake, because these people were able to further entrench themselves in the system."
Now, with two years left in his second term, Mr. Obasanjo's crusade appears to have regained steam. In recent months, his education minister was arrested for bribing legislators. His housing minister was fired for selling government property at cut-rate prices. And the police inspector general was led away in handcuffs on charges of money-laundering.
This illustrates that electing one `good guy' along with a bunch of crooks is like trying to fight a fire by dumping gasoline on it. Herein lies the problem with electing anybody to public office. Leaders should earn the right to serve, not have it handed to them for mouthing the words.
Herein lies yet another crucial issue that affects us here as much as it does people the world over. Only scoundrels and thieves have the need for secrecy, there is no place for it in a government by and of the people.
Any government that exempts itself (or its officials, elected or otherwise) from prosecution under the law is illegitimate.
Although Mr. Obasanjo's first act as president was to establish an anticorruption commission, the office has secured just two corruption-related convictions among the 85 people it has charged in its five years. Mustapha Akanbi, a retired judge who heads the commission, said he suspected that some judges have been paid off to toss out cases.
Government officials have also resisted change.
After investigators uncovered bribes to a hospital medical director, Mr. Akanbi said, the health minister refused to fire him until Mr. Akanbi complained personally to the president. "Every single step you take, there are bottlenecks," said Mike Sowe, the commission's spokesman.
Every few weeks, Mrs. Akunyili's agency made a show of burning heaps of fake drugs collected at airports, seaports, illegal factories and distributing houses. A spot check last year showed the impact: only one in eight drugs was unregistered. Major pharmaceutical companies have now returned to Nigeria, and other African nations have agreed to lift their bans on Nigeria's drugs.
Doctors were among the most grateful. "We know the drugs are real now, because the patients don't come back with the same symptoms," said Sister Josephine Ngama, a senior doctor at Ancilla Catholic Hospital on the outskirts of Lagos. "People had been trading in these fake drugs for years."
Yet it's sad to say that such a victory today can just as easily disappear tomorrow with the pull of a ballot lever...or in the backroom where the votes are supposedly being counted.
Mrs. Akunyili has been showered with awards, but her family is pressing her to quit.
Seven months after she took office, 10 armed men invaded her home, leaving only after learning that she was not there. In December 2003, armed gunmen attacked her car. A driver in a nearby bus was killed. One bullet went through Mrs. Akunyili's blue headdress, grazing her skull.
"It's like a war," she said. "They are fighting back."
Reformers like Mr. Akunyili stand out partly because they are so rare.
"Hopefully, they are going to do enough good that people are going to be attracted to them," said Victoria Kwakwa, the lead economist for the World Bank here. "It is going to have to start with small groups, because you don't have the base. If you did, you wouldn't have gotten to this point to begin with."
Africa does not have a monopoly on corrupt government. Until we attack that which corrupts governments, the profit driven interests of private enterprise, we will not better the lot of the ordinary citizen anywhere on this planet.
Thanks for letting me inside your head,