Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan recently claimed that Nigeria was the second most improved country in Africa in fighting corruption, citing Transparency International as the source. Unfortunately for the millions of Nigerians mired in poverty, this is not yet the case. But this could change if President Jonathan's government enforced anti-corruption legislation on its books and backed Nigerian's anti-corruption agencies as they pursue high level officials indicted for corruption.
In contrast to what the President said, in the last Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer in 2010, nearly three quarters of Nigerians said they thought corruption had become worse. They named the police and politicians as the most corrupt.
President Jonathan should heed this message and insist that those accused of corruption are properly investigated and punished if found guilty, irrespective of their positions and connections. The judiciary must be seen as impartial and fair. In the past their failure to convict and punish high government officials has eroded trust in their ability to act as an independent branch of government. This happened in recent cases involving senior executives of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp.
To signal a break with the past the government should set up an independent investigatory panel to review charges of corruption within government and the private sector. President Jonathan should endorse the panel and commit to ensure it has both the scope and the power to investigate and prosecute.
This is not just a matter of justice; fighting corruption can affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. The current culture of corruption hurts the majority of Nigerians while the inequality gap widens.
According to the World Bank, the top 10 per cent of income earners in Nigeria accounted for 38 per cent of the country's wealth in 2010 - up from 32 per cent in 2004. More than 80 per cent of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day despite the fact that Nigeria pumps 2.2m barrels a day of top grade oil. Government oil receipts in 2008, according to the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative topped $59 billion up from $43 billion the year before.
Corruption acts as a regressive tax on the poor. Studies by Transparency International show that poor people pay more as a percentage of their income than rich people. But a commitment to anti-corruption translates into improvements in development.
In 2011, Transparency International took a look at three of the Millennium Development Goals for water, maternal health and education and showed that greater transparency and commitment to anti-corruption translated into better results.
Countries with good marks on anti-corruption legislation show reduced rates of maternal mortality. There is also a strong correlation between greater public access to information and higher literacy rates for a nation's youth.
Vast oil wealth alongside dire poverty has been Nigeria's paradox for decades. With good legislation and more transparent and accountable institutions, oil could turn into a blessing for Nigerians rather than a source of frustration and environmental destruction. That is why it is so important that strong, enforceable legislation that is transparent is passed. The bill in parliament now is under discussion.
President Jonathan would give a strong sign that a new era of transparency has started if he made a public commitment to publish his own assets. It takes time to improve the perception of corruption in a country, but it requires decisive action and long-term commitment. Only then will Nigerians and others be able to claim that Nigeria is tackling corruption.
Auwal Musa Rafsanjani is executive director of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre in Abuja, Nigeria, a non-governmental organisation that that works to strengthen democracy and human rights legislation in Nigeria and educate lawmakers and the electorate.
Chantal Uwimana is Regional Director for Africa for Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organisation.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.