The presidential campaign by Nihu Ribadu may be hopeless, but it represents an important new form of political mobilization in a West African sub-region that greatly needs more creative electoral tactics.
Ribadu is the first anti-corruption czar in Nigeria, who was fired in 2007 after pushing too hard against wrong-doers in and around the government. While Ribadu has virtually no chance of winning a national election early next year, his campaign presents a novel approach to winning power in a country whose political leaders are a motley crew of misfits and miscreants. Ribadu is not without his flaws; he lacks administrative experience, and he has yet to demonstrate any particular sensitivity to Nigeria’s dizzying multi-ethnic, and multi-religious composition. Yet unlike anyone who has ever come before him in Nigerian politics, Ribadu is openly and frankly idealistic, committed to honesty, clarity and equity. These values make him a pioneer of great significance because his sub-region of West Africa is the most populous in the sub-Saharan and greatly in need of a vision for improved governance.
“Everything about me has always been clean and this will be a clean campaign,” Ribadu told the Economist this week. “In any case, I will not need as much money as other parties because I am not going to bribe anyone. My campaign is about winning over people with my ideas, not my money.”
The idea of gaining political power in Africa through ideas has a long history. In South Africa, Mandela famously came to power through the power of an idea (tolerance to the white minority, and unassailed power to the black majority). And 50 years ago, in the waning years of white-supremacist colonialism, Nkrumah in Ghana and Toure in Guinea each mobilized their untutored masses with compelling ideas of political and economic self-reliance.
In pushing ideas and values to the forefront of his campaign, Ribadu brings to Nigeria, and West Africa generally, an approach to politics that has yielded good results in other parts of the world, notably Eastern Europe and Latin America. Campaigns of conscience are often critical to renewing the capacity for long-suffering, long-oppressed polities to assemble pragmatic reform movements out of the shattered pieces of their nations. While the odds are stacked heavily against campaigns of conscience in Africa — a region where the “politics of the belly” famously dominates — such campaigns should be applauded rather than dismissed, reflexively, as hopeless.
Ideas do matter in African politics, even though decades of cynicism and disappointments have left Africans and friends of Africa suspicious of big ideas and campaigns of conscience. Mandela and the African National Congress proved this proposition time and again in South Africa. So did many others in Eastern Europe and Latin America in recent decades. Pragmatism has its place of course; ordinary Africans have too often been sacrificed on the altar of wildly-inappropriate “grand” ideas. Rabadu’s animating idea that corruption is the chief enemy of Nigerian prosperity is not without flaws. Yet a committment to honesty and integrity is undeniably important in any reformation of Nigeria or many other African nations. So the conclusion is inescapable: Ribadu’s high-minded quest for Nigeria’s presidency, however quixotic, is a powerful reminder that for Africa to achieve greater prosperity values and ethics must co-evolve with improving material conditions and better leadership.