Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Occasionally, I misplace my keys, but $20 billion? That's what the government of Nigeria has apparently lost track of and, not surprisingly, it has to do with oil. The West African nation sits on vast oil reserves that should generate a lot of income, but recently a top Nigerian official alleged that $20 billion of the country's oil revenue had gone missing. The official was about to launch an investigation, but Nigeria's President, Goodluck Jonathan, fired him first. Jonathan denies his government is responsible but there's definitely room for skepticism given the endemic corruption in Nigeria.

Sarah Chayes: The oil wealth is stolen at every stage from the moment it hits oxygen.

Werman: Sarah Chayes is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, she's been looking into the missing $20 billion.

Chayes: That's $20 billion over a mere 18 month period. That, from everything I have heard from western officials who have been tracking it closely, is going directly to Goodluck Jonathan. That's obviously through essentially money laundering, through the private banks there. But then you do have the oil money that makes it into the national budget and that's essentially stolen by civil servants through complex contract fraud. I spoke to an IT person and she explained that every project that costs money has two budgets. One that's on the system and the real budget that's off the system.

Werman: What surprised you about all of this, Sarah, because I kind of feel like this is something we've heard about in "The Sopranos" and we can assume that it happens in governments around the world.

Chayes: What I'm seeing is a pattern. I've been looking at a number of acutely corrupt countries and Nigeria is certainly one of them. I think part of the issue is, those of us looking at these countries, need to almost turn our idea of them around. Rather than seeing them as fundamentally governments who basically are trying to govern and see after the welfare of their people with a degree greater or less of corruption around the edges, to really think of it as these are criminal organizations that are posing as governments but are essentially using their government activity to pursue their primary objective, which is not governing but rather extracting resources. Where this becomes interesting in Nigeria is it links into the other big Nigeria story, which is Boko Haram.

Werman: How's the link between corruption and the rise of Boko Haram?

Chayes: The name "Boko Haram," which they don't call themselves but they've come to be called that, means "western education is forbidden," or "is ritually unclean." I think that westerners have a tendency to see that in cultural terms so it's like "oh, they don't like tolerance and scientific inquiry and critical thinking, right?" But if you think of it in the context of this massive civil service driven theft of national resources, it looks like something different. To get a job in the civil service, for example, or in a hospital, obviously you have to have a degree, right? You have to have gone to school or gotten what is seen, in the north anyway, as a western education. That's what Boko Haram was kicking against initially.

Werman: If this dual-budget system, this on the book and off the book system of numbers, if it's so well known, why do foreign donors keep giving to Nigeria?

Chayes: You've put your finger on a really critical element of US foreign policy. It's both aid agencies that are continuing to basically provide wiggle room for these governments to keep stealing their own money because the aid agencies are performing the functions that the governments ought to be performing. Meanwhile, we've just had, for example, Secretary of State Kerry condemning Boko Haram, promising counterterrorism support for Nigeria. But when the government of Nigeria is stealing $20 billion from its own people over an 18th month period, somehow that doesn't seem to be rising to the level of something that US foreign policy needs to grapple with.

Werman: What is the way out of this? How does a country like Nigeria with such deeply embedded corruption get clean?

Chayes: What's interesting is right now some of the things that might've made the US, for example, reticent to push on Nigeria are changing. Our need for Nigerian oil is changing. Nigeria's role as a powerbroker in Africa is changing. That gives the US some room to really look at putting more pressure on a country like Nigeria. It means also that our banks and our oil companies, our consumers need to think twice how their actions enable a system like this.

Werman: Sarah Chayes, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, always great to speak with you, thanks a lot.

Chayes: Thank you Marco.