Institutions, Not Heroes: Lessons from Nigeria’s EFCC

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.

5 thoughts on “Institutions, Not Heroes: Lessons from Nigeria’s EFCC

  1. Your point that, in the long term, institution-building is vital for the success of corruption-fighting efforts seems pretty inarguable. Still, just to play devil’s advocate, I wonder how much an institution can break through the cynicism of a jaded public to capture their attention and convince them of its legitimacy without some sort of charismatic or bold figure at its center. I suppose that idea isn’t necessarily in tension at all with your post–the trick is just figuring out, as you say, how to design an institution that lasts beyond that “hero.” From your description, it does seem right to say that any use of the EFCC as a political tool under Ribadu likely undermined those institution-building efforts by undermining the EFCC’s legitimacy. Was Ribadu likely guilty of the allegations level against him, or was there some sort of political reason behind them? If there was some validity to the claims, what institution or agency was responsible for bringing them to light?

    I really like that you gave suggestions as to how to help ensure the EFCC is independent. However, I assume even in your recommended system with greater tenure, there’s still some way to dismiss the EFCC chief for misbehavior. What sort of removal mechanism do you think would allow an EFCC leader to be properly removed but would also not be open (or at least less open, particularly if the allegations against Ribadu weren’t accurate) to political abuse?

    • Thank you so much for your feedback, Katie. Your questions also helped me better think through some of the points I made.

      We agree on hero-institution compatibility. And yes, charismatic leaders are particularly important in managing successful teams. I think effective institutions are nonetheless more important because charismatic managers or heroes are human. And big goals (or change) tends to be thrive with the transcendence that humans cannot sustain. Institutions are typically strengthened by (relatively) objective criteria and accountability structures that serve as an echoing Memento homo.

      Ribadu. There were definitely political undertones to his removal as with some of the actions brought by the EFCC. Few issues are apolitical. Yes, this may have undermined institution-building efforts. I however don’t think that sufficiently or exclusively explains the challenge.
      The case against Ribadu for an alleged failure to declare assets were brought by the state (the Attorney General). It appears the allegations were untrue – the case was withdrawn rather than decided upon.

      Removal mechanism. Presently, the President may remove the EFCC chair for cause, which isn’t entirely inappropriate (checks and balances, etc.). I suggest that this could be strengthened by reallocating this power to federal lawmakers– the President recommends for removal, and a (super-, even?) majority of lawmakers actually remove.

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  3. Funmi, your concrete recommendations (tenure, majority vote for removal) are really interesting and I would love to hear more of them. I wonder if Ribadu’s impact outlasted him more than it initially appears, though. Presumably he managed a team of top-flight lawyers, who, I imagine, subscribed to his mission and learned how to conduct the complex, controversial cases you discuss. Even though it depends upon people rather than a set of legal rules, human capacity is an essential component of an institution’s strength. And lower-level employees often carry over when their more politically-oriented chiefs do not. What happened to Ribadu’s cadre of subordinates? Have they tried to continue Ribadu’s work at the EFCC or elsewhere? To the extent that you are in touch as a Nigerian attorney working in this field, has the tenor of the discussion about anticorruption enforcement changed in the legal community (or, at least among the subset working with Ribadu)?

  4. Funmi,

    Impressive piece! I was fascinated by your point because of the pragmatic solution that you proffer and I am in agreement with your proposal to separate “the man” from “the institution”. The goal should be to establish a durable, self-sustaining and independent institution that is shielded from political pressures yet not too powerful to the point of abuse of power. Hence, I would even go further to suggest that for the EFCC – or any anti-corruption initiative for that matter – to be truly independent, it must both be free of political meddling yet not above the law. To that end, I’d propose lifetime appointment for the head of the EFCC, similar to the Supreme Court Justices in the United States. This would free the commission’s chairman from political pressure and guarantee true independence. Furthermore, it removes the fear of future persecution while also eliminating any future political ambitions that could motivate him/her to use the office to witch-hunt perceived potential rivals – an accusation leveled against Ribadu.

    But unlike the Justices, he/she is not immune from oversight. To avoid potential abuse of power, the chairman would be removable from office with a two-third majority of the two chambers of the federal legislature. This provision ensures that he can only be removed in cases of egregious abuse of power.

    Additionally, establishing a separate court outside the existing legal system to review corruption cases might be prudent.

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