Roots of Local-Level Corruption in Rivers State

The Rivers State Government: “Leading By Example”

Rivers State’s Commissioner for Information, Magnus Abe, told Human Rights Watch that one of the state government’s primary strategies for addressing problems of local-level governance is to “lead by example at the state level.”271 But in fact, governance at the state level in Rivers is plagued by many of the same problems that have crippled the state’s local governments. This is evidenced not only by the opaque and unaccountable manner in which the state dispenses with its revenues, but also by a host of other basic failures of governance. In this sense the state government is indeed leading by example, as its own failures have helped to fuel those of Rivers’ local governments.

The Rivers State government’s annual income has increased by leaps and bounds in recent years, fueled by dramatic increases in the price of oil. During the first eight months of 2006 the state government’s average monthly federal allocations topped N12.4 billion ($95.5 million), a figure that dwarfs the allocations received by most other Nigerian states (see table 4 below). The 2006 state budget projected total government spending in excess of N168 billion ($1.3 billion ), double the amount the state had to spend as recently as 2004 and more than the annual budgets of several West African countries (see tables 4 and 5 below).

 Table 4: Comparison of Monthly Allocations to Rivers State and Other Nigerian States.272


Central Government Budget, 2006



$1.68 billion

11.7 million

Rivers State, Nigeria

$1.33 billion

Between 4 and 5 million


$1.29 billion

10.5 million


$642 million

8.44 million


$320 million

11.3 million

Table 5: Comparison of Population and 2006 Budget of Rivers State Against Those of Selected West African Countries.273

Much of this windfall has been lost to the extravagance, waste and corruption that characterize state government spending, a problem that is exemplified by the state’s 2006 budget. Enormous sums have been channeled into the office of Governor Peter Odili, often on terms so vague that it is impossible to determine what they are actually meant to be used for. Such items include:

  • Budgets for unspecified “Grants, Contributions and Donations” and “Grants for Women, Youths and Other Organizations” to be handed out by the governor’s office at the rate of more than $91,000 per day or roughly N4.33 billion ($33.2 million) over the course of the year;274
  • A Security Vote of N5 billion (nearly $38.5 million);275 and
  • N10 billion ($77 million) for unspecified “Special Projects,” an item that did not even exist in the 2005 budget.276

Other items in the budget of the governor’s office are more specified but on their face show little apparent regard to legitimate state priorities, including:

  • Transport and travel budgets that total more than $65,000 per day;277
  • Budgets for catering services; “Entertainment and Hospitality”; and “Gifts and Souvenirs for Visitors to Government House” that total N1.3 billion ($10 million)—more than the total annual budget of some local governments;
  • N5 billion ($38.4 million) for the purchase of two helicopters and the construction of landing facilities—on top of 1.5 billion Naira that was allocated for the purchase of two jet aircraft in 2005.278
  • N1.5 billion ($11.5 million) for the purchase of new vehicles for Government House, even though N800 million was budgeted for this same purpose in 2005.279

Added together, the above items alone constitute 17 percent of total state government spending in 2006, or more than N30.1 billion ($230 million), an amount that exceeds the total annual allocation given to many Nigerian states in 2005.280 

The state government has not been nearly so generous in providing support to activities outside of Government House. The 2006 capital budget for the health sector actually declined slightly, to N2.8 billion from N3 billion in 2005. While government allocations to the governor’s office skyrocketed, an official with one donor agency official said that they had been approached with an “enormous” request for funds from one state education official; he had claimed that the state could not afford to purchase wooden desks for the state’s schools without outside help.281 The governor’s highly-touted “Rivers State Sustainable Development Program” has attracted only $20 million in state spending in 2006, less than the governor’s travel budget.282

Human Rights Watch was not granted an interview with Governor Odili, but did interview Rivers State’s Commissioner for Information Magnus Abe. Asked by Human Rights Watch to respond to criticisms that have been leveled against the government’s spending priorities, the Commissioner replied, “Let’s not be overly judgmental…The satisfaction of the people may not always be about food and drink.” He said that the government’s purchase of jet aircraft in particular had been a worthwhile investment because it allowed him and other officials to arrive for meetings in other parts of Nigeria in a timely manner. 283 In a recent interview with Time Magazine, the Commissioner said that it was “not nice” to suggest that there might be something wrong with the government’s spending priorities.284

“Our Lady Queen of Victories,” as pictured in a photo book detailing purported accomplishments of the Odili Administration entitled “Rivers State: The Rebirth,” provided to Human Rights Watch by the Rivers State Ministry of Information

Centralization of Power and Accountability

Political and economic power in Rivers State rests overwhelmingly in the hands of its governor. This basic fact is starkly reflected in the enormous proportion of state revenues available to the governor to spend at his discretion, and in the financial neglect accorded to other government agencies.285 Rivers State is by no means unique in this regard; one World Bank official confirmed to Human Rights Watch that in state and local governments throughout Nigeria, “All money generally passes through the hands of the governor or chairman.”286 

The centralization of state revenues in the hands of a single office-holder, with its commensurate political and economic power, discourages state government from being accountable for its spending.287 It also tends to undermine any pretense of effective oversight, allows for tremendous secrecy in the conduct of government business, and thereby fuels the problem of corruption.

The same centralizing trends are in evidence at the local level in Rivers State. According to law, each of Rivers State’s 23 LGAs is governed by an elected legislative council headed by an elected chair.288 In practice, most legislative councils have no real role in the affairs of day-to-day governance and nearly unfettered decision-making power lies in the hands of LGC chairpersons.

The one substantial check that legislative councils by law have over the power of their chairs lies in the requirement that they approve or vote down the local governments’ annual budgets.289 Legislative councils are also entitled to review the end-of-year expenditure reports each chair is required to submit.290 

Unfortunately, this theoretical check on the power of the chairman’s office has largely evolved into little more than an opportunity for self-enrichment. Many local government councilors do not scrutinize the merits of proposed budgets but instead simply demand large bribes from their chairs in return for passing them.291 Because they enjoy so little power in other contexts, many councilors look at the annual budget exercise as their single best opportunity to claim a share of local government revenues for their own enrichment.292 The farcical nature of this budget-making process is then compounded by the fact that chairmen routinely ignore even the minimal constraints they impose upon themselves through that process; local government chairmen are generally left free to spend money in ways not provided for in their budgets even though this is a violation of state law.293

Access to Information about Government Spending

There is no practicable way for citizens of Rivers State to determine how their state and local governments are making use of public revenues. Rivers State government officials claim that the state’s budget is published and made available to the public, but in fact this is not true.294 

The personal assistant to the Rivers State Commissioner for Budget and Planning told Human Rights Watch that the only way to obtain a copy of the state budget would be to submit a request in person to the commissioner himself. At the time, the commissioner was said to be away from the state on business and officials said that it was impossible to predict when he might return.295 The State Commissioner for Information insisted in an interview that the state budget was nonetheless “very easy” to obtain, but offered no insight as to how this might be accomplished.296   Human Rights Watch was ultimately able to obtain a copy of the state budget, but only through partners outside of government.

Government revenues were so unexpectedly high in 2005 that the Rivers State government was forced to pass a supplementary budget in September 2005 to govern the dispensation of a N43 billion ($340 million) windfall. Despite repeated efforts from a number of different quarters, neither Human Rights Watch nor any member of the public has been able to obtain a copy of this document, and very little is known about what it purportedly contained.297 In November, the state government passed a N23 billion ($176.9 million) supplementary budget for 2006298 as well as a budget for 2007 that totals N179.3 billion ($1.38 billion).299 To date neither document has been made public.

The picture is much the same at the local level. None of Rivers State’s 23 LGCs publish their budget or any other annual account of how they intend to spend the money they receive. In addition, most local governments make it nearly impossible for their constituents to obtain such information. Even the Rivers State Commissioner for Information acknowledged this problem:

The amount of funds coming into the local level is actually quite new, so the expectations that should build up about the results those funds should yield have yet to materialize on the part of the public. People do not actually know that their local governments have enough money to tar their own roads, pay their nurses, and so on.300

At all four of the local government secretariats visited by Human Rights Watch, local officials said that the only way to obtain a copy of the budget was to submit a request directly to the chairperson. In only one of those local governments—Tai local government in Ogoni—did the chairman agree to make the budget available.301 A handful of local government budgets were obtained through the state government’s Ministry for Local Government Affairs, and a number of others were acquired through informal channels.

Asked whether there was any way for citizens to discover the contents of their local governments’ budgets, JD Nalley, the top-ranking civil servant in the Rivers State Ministry of Local Government Affairs, replied, “I don’t know whether budgets are accessible to every Dick, Tom and Harry, but it’s a two-way street. Have the local people actually gone and asked for it?”302 The same official described one local government as exceptionally transparent simply because the chairman tells his staff how much money the local government receives each month.303

Oversight of Local Government Conduct

Under state law, the Rivers State government is responsible for oversight of the state’s 23 local governments. Perhaps the most important dimension of the state’s oversight role lay in its power to examine local government finances and to mete out sanctions to corrupt local officials.

The state government’s financial oversight powers are by law quite extensive. Rivers State maintains a Ministry of Local Government Affairs which has a general supervisory role over the local governments. The Ministry is charged with collecting all local government budgets, monitoring whether those budgets are reflected in the local governments’ actual spending patterns, and notifying the State House of Assembly wherever problems arise. The Ministry also produces occasional reports on issues relating to the quality of local governance in Rivers.304 

The State also employs an Auditor General for Local Government whose office is empowered to inspect the accounts of any and all local governments. The auditor general can also impose financial sanctions on local officials who are deemed to have improperly diverted local government funds.305 On top of all of this, the Rivers State House of Assembly has the power to remove local government chairmen and vice chairmen from office where they are found guilty of “gross misconduct” or other offenses warranting impeachment.306

The state’s actual application of these powers has been patchy at best. Few local government officials are sanctioned despite the rampant nature of their misconduct.307 Just as important, most of the information gleaned through the state government’s half-hearted attempts at oversight is treated as a carefully guarded secret.

The Auditor General for Local Government told Human Rights Watch that his office produced regular reports on irregularities in various local governments that were passed along to the State House of Assembly to act on.308 He claimed that those reports contained recommendations that could “bring sanity to the local governments” and “go a long way towards changing the system” if they were implemented. He complained, however, that the reports were generally ignored by the House. He also stated that he was not at liberty to discuss either their contents or their recommendations in even the most general of terms.309 

The Ministry for Local Government Affairs responded similarly to inquiries about their own oversight work. The Permanent Secretary for local government affairs did say that the Ministry had submitted a report dealing with problems local governance to the state House of Assembly in mid-2006. Asked about the report’s conclusions, however, he could only reply with the vague hope that it might be made public “after some time.”310

Violence and Corruption

Corruption in Rivers State is both fueled and facilitated by the state government’s lack of accountability to the electorate. Nigeria’s 2003 elections were marred by widespread violence and outright fraud; in Rivers State the process was even bloodier and less fair than the prevailing norm.311 Some of those perpetrating violence on behalf of the candidates were allegedly funded with money embezzled from state and local coffers. And because the Rivers State government is currently a one-party government—not one seat in the State House of Assembly is now occupied by a member of any opposition party—there are no elected officials to demand, let alone ensure, accountability.

Many leading politicians armed and deployed organized gangs of thugs to manipulate the 2003 elections, and the state is now awash with guns. 312 Many former political enforcers have since evolved into well-armed criminals or leading anti-government militants. The violent trends set in motion during the 2003 elections have persisted, with many politicians maintaining links to armed gangs in order to defend their political and economic interests. Some leading state politicians, including the state’s Commissioner for Finance, have even sent their gangs into the streets to wage deadly political turf wars on their behalf.313 Lawrence Chuku, then the Deputy Chairman of Obio/Akpor local government told Human Rights Watch that his chairman, with whom he was engaged in a protracted political battle, had sent thugs to attack his supporters on multiple occasions.

Some local government officials have used violence to improve their incomes directly through the practice of extortion. In 2005, a group of okada (motorcycle taxi) riders came together to protest a variety of extortionate practices to which they said the local government administrations of Port Harcourt and neighboring Obio/Akpor local government had subjected them. The okada riders alleged that the chairmen of both local governments were forcing them to pay illegal fees they had no authority to collect and that those fees were going directly into the pockets of those officials.314  They also accused local government officials of privately employing gangs of touts called “task forces” who beat up okada riders they caught without the required tickets.

The okada riders took up their case in the courts and were met with a swift and violent reaction. Mobile police officers on one occasion allegedly attacked the office of their lawyer.315 In another instance, police stripped a leading member of the okada riders’ group naked in the street outside the lawyer’s office and severely beat him. “They took me in my nakedness to the police station,” he said, where he was kept naked in a cell for three days without being given a reason for his arrest.316

Suppression of Media Criticism

Nigeria as a whole has seen marked improvements in the freedom of expression accorded to its population and the media since the end of military rule. However, local media outlets in some states have not fared as well as their more prominent national counterparts. Rivers State is home to numerous statewide newspapers, but many Port Harcourt-based editors and journalists told Human Rights Watch that they are subjected to forms of harassment and intimidation that often dissuade them from criticizing state government policies and actions.

The editor of one Port Harcourt-based newspaper told Human Rights Watch that members of his staff had been “invited” for questioning (that is, detained) by the police or State Security Service (SSS) more than half a dozen times since 1999 because of stories they had written that included criticism of state government policies and actions.317 A particularly vocal columnist for one local paper told Human Rights Watch that his editor had threatened to discontinue publishing him on numerous occasions because of the anger his columns had elicited from state officials.318

The publisher of one Port Harcourt daily described the impact of such incidents this way:

You should be able to attack government policies and actions, but every time you do so they take it as a personal attack and the police and SSS end up issuing you invitations…There are so many loopholes that could land a journalist in jail, it has an impact. It makes us extremely cautious about what we write. And for some of us, it weakens our resolve to publish what we would want.319  

271 Human Rights Watch interview with Magnus Abe, Rivers State Commissioner for Information, Port Harcourt, August 31, 2006.

272 This chart is drawn from figures published by the Nigerian Ministry of Finance each month.

273 2006 Budget data for Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Niger taken from the US State Department Background notes for those countries, available online at (accessed November 7, 2006).

274 Rivers State 2006 Budget, Heads 412(9) and 412(12A). The total amount budgeted is N4.33 billion (more than $33.3 million), nearly twice the amount that was allocated in 2005.

275 Rivers State 2006 Budget, Head 467B(1).

276 Rivers State 2006 Budget, Head 468C(1).

277 Rivers State 2006 Budget, Heads 412(2A) and 412(14). The Government House budget for “transport” comes to N800 million ($6.15 million), while the “travel” budget comes to N2.2 billion ($16.92 million).

278 Rivers State 2006 Budget, Heads 470(B) and 470(C). The Rivers State government claims that one of its new jet aircraft is actually “for the purpose of emergency evacuation for medical treatment abroad for anybody who would like to rent it” and can also be “rented or leased by companies or individuals for personal use.” (accessed October 1, 2006).

279 Rivers State 2006 Budget, Head 467A(1).

280 According to the Federal Ministry of Finance’s published figures, the average total federal allocation to each of Nigeria’s 36 states in 2005 was N30,174,838,129.31 ($232 million). Total allocations to Rivers State in 2005 exceeded N116 billion ($892 million).

281 Human Rights Watch interview, August 2006.

282 See below, The International Response, for more discussion of the Rivers State Sustainable Development Program. Rivers State 2006 Budget, Head 459.

283 Human Rights Watch interview with Magnus Abe, Rivers State Commissioner for Information, Port Harcourt, August 31, 2006.

284 Simon Robinson, “Nigeria’s Deadly Days,” Time Europe Magazine, May 14, 2006,,13155,1193987,00.html (accessed November 8, 2006).

285 According to an analysis produced by one Port Harcourt-based NGO, 78% of the total budget allocations for overhead expenses to 15 state ministries and a range of other departments are set aside for Government House and the State House of Assembly.

286 Human Rights Watch interview with World Bank official, September 2006.

287 See below, The Federal Government Response.

288 For instance, chairs are theoretically obligated to hold regular meetings with their vice-chairs and leading members of the legislative council to decide “the general directions of the policies of the local government” and other basic matters. Rivers State Local Government Law, No. 3 of 2000, sec. 33.

289 Rivers State Local Government Law, No. 3 of 2000, sec. 19(1)(a). Legislative councils can also propose amendments to the budgets. Ibid.

290 Ibid., sec. 19(1)(b).

291 Human Rights Watch interviews with anti-corruption officials and civil society activists, Abuja and Port Harcourt, August and September 2006.

292 See Aluko, Corruption in the Local Government System, p. 97: “Usually, these legislators demand a bribe from the executive before they approve the local government’s annual budget. They demand weekly ‘pay’ from the chair, and also ask for ‘returns’ (that is, their own share of money from executed projects).”

293 See above, Local Government Corruption and Mismanagement in Rivers State: An Overview.

294 Some state officials told Human Rights Watch that the budget was available for viewing in the state library. All of the staff present at the library when Human Rights Watch visited vehemently denied this.

295 Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, August 2006.

296 Human Rights Watch interview with Rivers State Commissioner for Information Magnus Abe, Port Harcourt, August 31, 2006.

297 Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, August 2006.

298 “Odili Budget N23bn as 4 Pick Guber Forms,” This Day, November 30, 2006.

299 “Gov. Odili Presents N 179.3 Billion Budget for 2007,” Rivers State House of Assembly Press Release, (accessed December 4, 2006).

300 Human Rights Watch interview with Rivers State Commissioner for Information Magnus Abe, Port Harcourt, September 1, 2006.

301 In Khana and Etche local governments it was not even possible to present such a request; at the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit to both localities, officials said that they had not seen their chairs for several weeks and did not know where they could be found.

302 Human Rights Watch interview with JD Nalley, Rivers State Permanent Secretary for Local Government Affairs, Port Harcourt, August 26, 2006.

303 Human Rights Watch interview with Rivers State Permanent Secretary for Local Government Affairs JD Nalley, Port Harcourt, August 26, 2006. He was referring to Emohua local government, northwest of Port Harcourt. The Ministry is responsible for collecting local government budgets, but could not locate copies of most of those that were requested by Human Rights Watch.

304 Human Rights Watch interview with JD Nalley, Rivers State Permanent Secretary for Local Government Affairs, Port Harcourt, August 26, 2006.

305 Rivers State Local Government Law, No. 3 of 2000, sec.114 and 117.

306 Rivers State Local Government Law, No. 3 of 2000, sec. 13.

307 See, for example, the case studies on Khana and Etche local governments above.

308 Human Rights Watch interview with Inemeh Friday, auditor general for Local Government, Port Harcourt, August 14, 2006. The Public Accounts Committee of the House is directly responsible for receiving and acting upon those reports. Ibid.

309 Ibid.

310 Human Rights Watch interview with JD Nalley, Rivers State Permanent Secretary for Local Government Affairs, Port Harcourt, August 26, 2006.

311 See Human Rights Watch, Nigeria’s 2003 Elections: The Unacknowledged Violence, June 2004, pp. 14-19,

312 See Human Rights Watch, Rivers and Blood: Guns, Oil and Power in Nigeria’s Rivers State, February 2005,

313 The most dramatic recent example of this phenomenon occurred in the town of Bodo in Gokana local government. Two prominent Rivers State politicians hail from Gokana— Kenneth Kobani, the State Commissioner for Finance, and Gabriel Pidomson, a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly. In what local analysts called a struggle for position ahead of the 2007 elections, gangs allegedly linked to the two politicians carried out a series of brutal attacks on one another in and around Bodo during August 2006. At least a dozen people were killed and the community was plunged into a state of insecurity and terror for several weeks. Apparently alarmed by the scale of the violence and worried that it might set a precedent for the 2007 elections, the federal government’s State Security Service took the unusual step of arresting both Kobani and Pidomson. After several weeks in detention, however, both men were released and left to resume their posts in government. Neither has been charged with any crime or received any other sort of formal sanction.  See Patrick Naagbanton, “The Bodo War of Attrition,” July 31, 2006, (accessed November 8, 2006).

314 Officials allegedly forced them to join a union (called the Rivers State United Motorcycle Commercial Association, or RUMCA) that existed for the sole purpose of extracting membership fees from them.

315 Human Rights Watch interviews, Port Harcourt, August 28 and 29, 2006.

316 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, August 29, 2006. This incident was reported in the local press. Constance Meju, “Okada Rider Stripped Naked as Association Chairman Battles Activist,” The Beacon, March 10-16, p.5.

317 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, September 1, 2006.

318 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, August 28, 2006.

319 Human Rights Watch interview, Port Harcourt, August 29, 2006.