ABUJA, Sep 21 (Reuters) A power struggle between Nigeria's attorney general and the main anti-corruption agency is undermining efforts to stop the looting of public funds in Africa's biggest oil producer, anti-graft activists say.
The fight against corruption is critical to efforts to pull Africa's most populous nation out of poverty, and President Umaru Yar'Adua declared a zero tolerance policy when he took office on May 29.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) made a busy start under the new government, charging five former state governors with corruption weeks after their tenures ended and they lost their constitutional immunity.
The charges, along with the conviction for graft of another ex-governor arrested under the previous administration, raised hopes that the tide was turning for the kleptocratic elite.
But since then, the EFCC has become bogged down in an interminable row with Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa, who has tried to assert his authority over the agency and accused it of disregarding the law in the course of its work.
Anti-corruption activists say tension between the desire to act quickly and the need to follow the rules has always been there, but it has become more acute under Yar'Adua, who has made the rule of law his watchword.
''The critical thing is to bring the office of the attorney general in line with the spirit of the fight. They are being too legalistic,'' said Assisi Asobie, a former head of the Nigerian arm of Transparency International who remains an active member.
''The EFCC should also take the cue that it cannot ride roughshod over the law,'' he said.
ACCUSATIONS The EFCC stands accused, among other things, of detaining people for questioning longer than the 48 hours allowed by law, ignoring court orders and treating suspects too roughly. The agency denies the charges and says it always acts lawfully.
The attorney general, on the other hand, has been widely criticised for trying to pull rank on the EFCC and interfere in its work, to the detriment of the anti-corruption war in one of the world's most tainted countries.
''Aondoakaa has never condemned corruption. He has never initiated any criminal prosecution of any public officer... Our attorney general pretends that he hears no corruption, sees no corruption in a country littered with corruption,'' said lawyer and campaigner Gani Fawehinmi.
Nigeria makes about 40 billion dollars per year from oil but most of its 140 million people live on less than 1 dollar a day and the country's mortality rates are among the worst in the world.
The stand-off between Aondoakaa and the EFCC has been splashed all over the front pages for weeks and the issue has become so poisonous that the Senate earlier this week asked Yar'Adua to speak out and put an end to the sniping.
Critics say the only winners of the fight are corrupt government officials who are off the hook for now.
''The key suspects in the biggest cases involving the looting of public treasuries have gladly purchased ringside tickets, watching with glee and urging the combatants on,'' wrote columnist Yusuph Olaniyonu in This Day newspaper.
''This will not augur well for Nigeria, where corruption remains the best explanation for our under-development.'' REUTERS ARB AS1736