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Strong convictions: Nigeria's first anticorruption czar

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 8, 2007


When Nigerian parents want their children to behave, they don't threaten them with a spanking. Nowadays, they say: "If you keep that up, I'll tell Ribadu."

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Such is the reputation of the nation's first anticorruption cop.

In person, Nuhu Ribadu looks more like a geek than a cudgel-bearer. A lanky man with black-rimmed glasses and boyish grin, he doesn't come across as someone who would instill fear in Nigerian children – let alone corrupt politicians and businessmen.

Yet no individual has come to represent integrity and rule of law more than this former prosecutor. Last month, The Vanguard newspaper in Lagos named Mr. Ribadu 2006 "Man of the Year" for having "touched lives and influenced events, for better or worse, in Nigeria more than any other person or issue in the past year."

Critics say Ribadu has tainted his efforts by becoming a political pawn of Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo – selectively finding graft. Still, even ardent opponents of Mr. Obasanjo laud his appointment of Ribadu as head of the first financial fraud agency.

"The EFCC [Economic and Financial Crimes Commission] is a major turning point in the war against corruption. Nobody can take that away from Obasanjo," says Jibrin Ibrahim, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and a critic of the administration.

To appreciate the progress made, consider where Nigeria was when Ribadu began his crusade in 2003.

• Not a single case of fraud had been successfully prosecuted in 20 years; to date, there have been 130 convictions, including state governors and other high officials. Of late, the vice president has been in Ribadu's cross hairs.

• Nigeria had a reputation as the global capital for e-mail scams – letters that seek to borrow your bank account to park millions, for a "token" deposit. The so-called 419 scams (after a section in the Nigerian criminal code) gave his nation " a horrible image," says Ribadu. In its first three months, the EFCC shut down more than 2,000 illicit e-mail operators, recovering some $750 million for victims. "He wanted to quickly send a message, and develop a credible track record," says Asishana Okauru, a Nigerian who was working for IBM in Raleigh, N.C. in 2003 and moved home to become one of the first members of the enforcement team.

• Since oil sales began filling government coffers in 1970s (Nigeria is Africa's biggest crude-oil exporter), political and military leaders have lined their own pockets with an estimated $380 billion, says Ribadu. In the past four years, the EFCC has started to reverse the flow, recovering $5 billion in stolen public funds.

That doesn't mean corruption has ended. In 2006, Nigeria was still perceived as among the most corrupt nations in the world, according to surveys of businessmen and officials by Transparency International.

What's different now is the determination, backed by tougher laws and young judges and prosecutors, to make a change.

"No other country in the world, let alone in Africa, has this kind of a record against corruption," boasts Ribadu, warming to the topic during a recent meeting with US journalists. Perhaps more important than the recovered funds, he says, is an emerging public confidence in the rule of law. That in turn fosters expectations of better leadership in a nation that has teeter-tottered between military dictatorships and struggling democracies since independence from Britain in 1960.

"There are sanctions now for politicians who steal, who are selfish," he says. "This is something that's never happened before.... Of course, if you touch them, they say you're stopping democracy. But I say the worst human rights violation is the theft of public money."

To be sure, Ribadu has critics. Their most common charge is that while he may be a good public watchdog, he's also Obasanjo's private Doberman. They concede that the EFCC has helped jail or impeach top officials – but say the agency only investigates political enemies of the president, thus undermining its integrity.