The Lawyers’ Role in Perpetuating Corruption in Nigeria

Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, spoke to lawyers in Abuja on December 1 on his experience fighting corruption in Nigeria and the role the bar played.

Ribadu came to international attention in the mid-2000s for his audacious efforts to combat the high level corruption then rampant in the country, a fight that led to attempts on his life and ultimately his illegal removal from office despite protests from Nigerian civil society and the international community.  Although Ribadu remains active in Nigerian public life, chairing a high level commission on corruption in the Nigerian oil industry and running twice (unsuccessfully) for public office, he has been relatively silent on the obstacles he faced as head of the EFCC.  In his December 1 speech, unfortunately at this writing still not available online, he explains how some of Nigeria’s most prestigious lawyers, known as SANs or Senior Advocate Nigeria, collaborate with some of Nigeria’s most corrupt actors to frustrate the country’s effort to eradicate corruption at the highest levels of government.

For the benefit of his friends in the international community (of which this writer is one) as well as for a useful insight on one of the challenges of tackling grand corruption, below are excerpts from that speech as reported in the Nigerian press.

“I still recall with amazement and shock how some very senior lawyers made it a duty upon themselves to bring down the EFCC and stop the work we were doing. Many of them, like Prof. Ben Nwabueze, SAN, teamed up with politicians to wage a very serious propaganda to discredit the work we were doing.

“One thing that also did a serious damage to the war against corruption was the active connivance of some senior lawyers who represented the governors we charged to courts after the 2007 election. . . .  It is on record that we charged the former governors of Jigawa, Taraba, Adamawa, Plateau, Enugu, Ekiti, Delta, Abia and Edo states as the first set of ex-governors to face prosecution. However, almost 10 years after, most of the cases have not gone anywhere because of deliberate action by lawyers to frustrate the trials.

“Take the case of Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, whose most cardinal agenda as the [Attorney General of the Federal Government] seemed to be destroying EFCC by every means possible and frustrating all the cases. In that regard he attempted to take over the prosecutorial powers of the commission, which would have rendered the EFCC into a toothless bulldog.

“We did all the work and took the investigation [of the Haliburton scandal] to a very advanced stage, but the case was handed over to private lawyers [to prosecute on behalf of the government] who connived with some officials to feather their nests from it. The lawyers ended up earning more than even the government, to the anguish of those diligent workers who built the case. That was a very unprofessional practice and against global best practice.

“Some lawyers even went to the extent of attempting to compromise us to reach their target [of earning ever more money]. Of course, we prosecuted those involved in such brazen irresponsibility. Because of their centrality in many financial transactions, many lawyers were directly indicted in some scandals.”

Not all Nigerian lawyers have been an obstacle to fighting corruption, Ribadu noted.  He singled out for special praise several senior members of the bar including the current Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, and late human rights lawyer, Mr. Gani Fawehinmi, SAN.

“In this, Gani has an enviable place. He gave the EFCC his all. He went up to the Supreme Court twice in defence of our work and offered all services of his chambers, including the Law Reports, free for the commission.

“Another strong pillar of support was Femi Falana, SAN, who supported us in nurturing the EFCC to what it is today. Mr. Falana’s legal advocacy and support is still being felt by those doing the work. We equally got incredible support from others like Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN; the current Vice President of Nigeria, Mr. Tayo Oyetibo, SAN; Mr. Rotimi Jacobs, SAN; and Chief Kanu Agabi, SAN.”

The speech was widely reported in the Nigerian media.  More complete accounts appear here, here, and here.  Several of those called out in Ribadu’s speech have replied, denying his charges and attacking record while head of the EFCC.  Their replies have also been widely reported in the Nigerian press.  Here, for example, is Professor Nwabuez’ response.

4 thoughts on “The Lawyers’ Role in Perpetuating Corruption in Nigeria

  1. Thanks Rick for sharing this account from Nigeria. It summarizes rather well, what sounds like a familiar description of the relationship between lawyers and corruption in the justice system. Good guys, bad guys, and the press. I think it would be interesting to dig deeper to learn about the system of corruption in Nigeria, and compare it to recent findings from Uganda on “What Dynamics Drive Police and Judicial Officers to Engage in Corruption.” Are you familiar with any works done on the judicial system in Nigeria? From your knowledge of corruption in the Nigerian context, does it draw resemblance to what CDA found in Uganda? Regards, Jasmine CDA Collaborative Learning Projects

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