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.
In 2007, President Yar’Adua dismissed Mallam Nuhu Ribadu for an alleged failure to declare his assets while in office. The EFCC never quite recovered. Over the following years, the agency was accused of corrupt practices and was more in the news for scandals than prosecutions. So that when in 2015, then-President Goodluck Jonathan casually described EFCC’s mandate as one that excludes corruption, there were neither protests nor headlines.
Hindsight is always helpful for analysis. In Nigeria’s case, the EFCC’s failure was primary driven by factors ordinarily considered as vital for success in anticorruption: a strong leader’s zeal, and political will.
Mallam Nuhu Ribadu was ambitious and courageous. He built a great team that retains credit for hard-earned prosecutions of powerful criminals in a young democracy. He also enjoyed the fervent support of the President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government (a point not undermined by allegations that the EFCC was used as a political tool to punish political opponents). This second point was particularly helpful in post-1999 Nigeria, a country whose decades of military rule shaped a constitution that confers enormous power on the head of state. Both the EFCC and the Nigerian government also enjoyed some support from the country’s foreign partners, including jurisdictions that had harbored corruptly acquired assets. The United Kingdom for example, helped identify stolen assets located abroad, including the infamous Diepreye Alamieyeseigha and James Ibori cases.
These factors however led to the decline of prosecutions when both Ribadu and Obasanjo left public office. Without Mallam Ribadu, the EFCC seemed incapable of fighting corruption in the same country it had previously succeeded in. It did not help that accusations of selective prosecutions were strengthened by Mallam Ribadu’s own public compromises in his post-EFCC’s quest for political power.
As President-elect Muhammadu Buhari takes office in May with a firm commitment to fight corruption, the lessons remain the same. It is important that anticorruption efforts are structured to outlast this government of his appointees. And the fixes are now easy –- experience is a convincing teacher. Now is the time to build succession plans as Nigeria nurtures a pipeline of effective leaders and teams. Nigeria can ensure a truly independent EFCC by designing a tenure system that extends beyond the President’s term. Independent prosecutors can yet be accountable through transparency requirements. Further, while publicity is great for transparency, we must hold our prosecutors to stronger ethical standards.
The lessons here are as old as the civil service: institutions, not people. While heroes are nice to have, our long-term needs call for strong institutional structures.