Nigeria has a corruption problem. Whether described as misuse of public office for private gain, trading in influence, money laundering, or the theft of public funds, this problem is rife, and we know it. There is also a list of scandals that is as long as it is depressing: that fuel subsidy fraud, those egregiously inflated prices for the purchase of vehicles, the disappearing treasury, and a bewildering pardon for an infamous corrupt convict.
Between 2003 and 2007, it looked as if Nigeria had found a solution to the corruption problem, and that solution had a name: Mallam Nuhu Ribadu. As Chair of the Economic and Financial Commission (EFCC), Mallam Ribadu led successful prosecutions of financial crimes, bringing thousands of indictments, over 270 convictions and double that number in arrests. Described by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime as “a crime-buster made of the hardest steel alloy every manufactured”, Ribadu’s work was filled with fearless firsts. Under his leadership, the EFCC conducted investigations leading to the indictment and conviction of the Inspector General of Police (Ribadu was a policeman). The EFCC indicted five governors and secured two convictions – feats previously thought impossible. The EFCC also arrested and prosecuted hundreds of confidence scammers, and served as an effective deterrent to financial crimes. It was also largely due to the EFCC’s efforts that Nigeria was removed from Financial Action Task Force’s list of non-cooperative jurisdictions. Ribadu put a face to the previously mythical dependable and trustworthy law enforcement.
Yet for all his well-deserved praise, Ribadu’s tenure at the EFCC, and what happened afterwards, illustrates the limits of strong individuals in weak institutions. While anticorruption heroes are great, institutions matter more.