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Stiff Penalties For Footballers

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Author: The Economist print edition
Posted to the web: 6/12/2005 6:23:01 PM

The mysteries of Nigerian justice
LAST week, more than 50 Nigerians, some of them wearing football shirts and shorts, appeared before a federal high court charged with treason. Their alleged crime was to have represented a banned secessionist group from south-eastern Nigeria in a football tournament. They have already spent more than six months in jail. Prosecutors are asking for the death sentence. One can understand why the Nigerian government takes secessionist threats seriously. The last time the south-east tried to break away, during the Biafran war of 1967-70, a million people died. But it is not clear that the footballers in the dock have ever threatened to hurt anyone. Contrast that with Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a warlord from the oil-rich Niger delta who threatened last year to wage “all-out war” on the Nigerian state if his ethnic kin were not given a bigger share of the oil money. After cutting a deal with the president, Olusegun Obasanjo, he now lives in stunning opulence. Mr Obasanjo's critics charge that his anti-corruption campaign is being waged with similar capriciousness. On March 22nd Mr Obasanjo announced on television that he had sacked his education minister, Fabian Osuji, after receiving intelligence reports “confirming” that he had bribed lawmakers to inflate his ministry's budget. Mr Osuji is the second minister to be sacked over sleaze since 2003 (the first was a labour minister). Reformers within the government are claiming it as a victory in the long struggle against corruption. Mr Obasanjo mentioned that other ministries are also being investigated. But Mr Osuji denies the allegations and says he was targeted because of his connections to the vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, who the local press says is Mr Obasanjo's principal political rival. Mr Osuji's supporters contrasted his treatment with that of Tafa Balogun, a former chief of police who resigned in January amid allegations of embezzlement. Mr Osuji was arrested almost immediately after being sacked. Mr Balogun, a close ally of Mr Obasanjo, was not arrested until this week. Opposition politicians say he was only detained to avoid the appearance of partiality, and that he will probably be acquitted. Squabbling between the president and the national assembly, meanwhile, has left Nigeria without a budget, which was supposed to have been passed in December. Lawmakers added $865m to Mr Obasanjo's budget bill. Mr Obasanjo refused to sign it, for fear of stoking inflation and irking Nigeria's foreign creditors, whom he is trying to persuade to write off some of the country's debts. The stalemate over the budget and other essential bills may not be easy to break. Lawmakers are in an obstructive mood, not least because they are furious that Mr Obasanjo has publicly accused them of “wallow[ing] in corruption”.

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