Washington, DC — Sometimes an event, scarcely noticed, never captured for YouTube, can ripple through a nation’s consciousness. So it was on Saturday, 29 December, 2008, at Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, Nigeria with the unexpected arrival of the anti-corruption crusader Nuhu Ribadu.
Five years earlier, in 2003, Ribadu, a relatively unknown police chief, became head of a newly-formed organization called the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of Nigeria (EFCC). Prior to its establishment, no Nigerian official had been convicted for theft, despite estimates that corruption had robbed the Nigerian people of U.S. $380 billion since the country’s independence.
The EFCC was part of a package of reforms introduced by President Olusegun Obasanjo. Ribadu’s statutory mission was to fight official corruption. His own aim was more ambitious: to change how Nigerians saw themselves and how the world viewed Nigeria.
One of Ribadu’s first accomplishments was to curb the infamous “419” scams — formally called “advance fee frauds,” but commonly known by the number of a section in Nigeria’s criminal code. This worldwide network lured gullible recipients of letters, faxes and emails into schemes that have netted the perpetrators billions of dollars and tarnished the reputations of legitimate Nigerian entrepreneurs. The notoriety of these mail and cyber crimes subjected any person traveling on a Nigerian passport to suspicion.
The EFCC brought corrupt politicians, previously deemed untouchable, before local courts in handcuffs. By the end of 2007, the Commission’s work had resulted in the conviction of nearly two hundred senior officials, including nine state governors, the President of the Senate, the Inspector General of Police, members of Parliament and senior banking executives.
In addition, the government of Nigeria recovered more than $5 billion in frozen or stolen assets and returned funds to defrauded individuals and institutions from Brazil to Hong Kong to southern Florida, USA.
Those actions paved the way for Nigeria’s entry into the international Extractive Industries Initiative (EITI), giving it a new reputation for fighting corruption and providing a boost to foreign direct investment.
The EFCC also built working relationships with INTERPOL, the Metropolitan Police of London, the Canadian Mounted Police, South Africa’s anti-corruption unit, the Scorpions, and the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
In 2005, two years after the Commission’s establishment, Nigeria was listed as one of the 21 most improved nations by the World Bank and the World Economic Forum’s governance survey, which noted advances in controlling corruption, taxation and management of public procurement and public finances.
“Can you believe it?” a Nigerian friend exclaimed to me. “The Nigerian government is working with the FBI! I have never been so proud to be a Nigerian.” A Nigerian working in Ghana added: “Maybe one day soon the entrepreneur will be the role model for the Nigerian youth instead of the corrupt politician.”
That was then.
In December 2007 the EFCC charged former Delta state governor James Ibori with 103 counts of corruption, including an attempt to bribe Ribadu with $15 million dollars in cash. Delta is one of Nigeria’s oil-producing states and Ibori is among the country’s wealthiest politicians.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, his arrest sent a shock wave though Nigeria’s political establishment. Two weeks afterwards, Ribadu was ordered to resign his post as EFCC chair to join a10-month training course that the Nigerian press dubbed “reeducation.”
While attending the course at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) in the city of Jos, Ribadu was demoted two ranks and forcibly prevented from graduating with his class. When he challenged his demotion, he was fired from the police force after 20 years of service. Following two assassination attempts, he left Nigeria for Britain.
The EFCC, under the leadership of Ribadu’s successor, Farida Waziri, has taken a number of new initiatives to try to regain public confidence, including launching the Anti-Corruption Revolution Programme (ANCOR). Nigerian Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa has claimed that the EFCC under Ribadu operated outside the “rule of law”, necessitating its reorganization under Waziri.
ANCOR’s establishment may have created the illusion of momentum in the war against corruption, and the justification of “rule of law” may encourage bilateral donors to tone down their criticisms. But Nigerians remain skeptical.
Convictions by the EFCC, totaling hundreds a year under Ribadu, now barely reach single digits. Officials who previously prosecuted the anti-corruption campaign have either been sent to remote outposts, fired, demoted or left on their own volition.
Many of the governors convicted by the EFCC, including Ibori, have been released, freed on bail. Human Rights Watch reports that the high-profile cases initiated by Ribadu have been effectively stalled.
So let’s get back to Murtala Muhammed Airport.
On that Saturday last December, when Nuhu Ribadu disembarked from an Arik Air flight from Abuja to Lagos, he was unprepared for his reception. He had come to prepare a legal defense to charges brought against him by the Inspector General of Police — the charges that resulted in his expulsion from the force.
As reported by the Nigerian newspaper Punch, taxi drivers and airport workers began to cheer and salute. The normal flow of business at the terminal was disrupted. Punch quoted reactions from members of the crowd. “This guy is a genuine folk hero,” said one. “The excitement started on the plane,” said another. “The whole plane just went wild and people were clapping and praying for him.”
Cab drivers jostled for the honor of taking him to his destination. When Ribadu finally found his assigned car, the crowd chased the vehicle as it departed, singing Ribadu’s praises and cursing his enemies. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and probably never will again,” said one onlooker.
Why should we care about the 30-minute melee at a bustling, chaotic airport? It matters because the spontaneous sentiments of that accidental crowd reflect a collective anger, frustration and hope in Africa’s most populous nation.
Ribadu himself would admit that the EFCC under his leadership was an imperfect institution. But his anti-corruption crusade sent a strong message that no one was untouchable or above the law.
It gave hope to a new generation of Nigerians that being born to a powerful, wealthy family or becoming a political crony was not the only path to success. Ribadu gave Nigerians hope that they could be proud of themselves and their country.
Ribadu is not the only capable technocrat and dedicated official who has suffered for doing a job too well. But he has come to symbolize the hope of a young and restless generation, hungry for leadership, for justice and for change.
Time will tell what the growing pressure for reform will accomplish in a country full of constricted potential. My bet is with the people of Nigeria.
K. Riva Levinson is managing director of KRL International, a consultancy dedicated to emerging markets. She has worked on Africa issues for 20 years. KRL served as a pro-bono consultant for the EFCC in 2007.
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