I ran into him at the reception lobby of the Hotel Des Milles Collines in Kigali. He had just arrived and was trying to check into the hotel: Nuhu Ribadu, the erstwhile Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission who lost his job under rather controversial circumstances, and who is regarded as having been unfairly treated by the Yar’Adua government. I hugged him. He had lost nothing of his humility, his sense of humour and his humanity. He didn’t look like a man who had just been rough-tackled by the unpredictable Nigerian state whose moral compass is subject solely to the whims and caprices of whoever is in charge, and not necessarily principles and values.
The following morning, we sat together on the same long table, and I slipped a note to him. I wanted an interview with him for The Guardian. It is about time he told his story at great length. He read my note, and picked up his pen. I noticed that he is a Southpaw, and I chuckled remembering how so many southpaws tend to find themselves in the hot corners of history. In his response, he had said “we would discuss.” We were both attending a conference organised by UNECA in collaboration with UNDP to assess the efficiency and impact of anti-corruption institutions in Africa. There were anti-corruption chiefs in attendance from various African countries.
Ribadu wouldn’t grant an interview, but he was ready to discuss. “I think it is better for me to remain silent now”, he says. “I am using this period to reflect on what we did. You know when I took up the job in 2003, I resolved that I will try my utmost best. And walahi, I tried. I took the assignment seriously. Maybe I failed, but at least we proved that it is possible. So, I have been thinking and trying to figure out what further should have been done or could have been done differently.” We were soon asked to introduce ourselves. When it was Ribadu’s turn, he told the meeting: “I am Nuhu Ribadu, former Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of Nigeria, currently recuperating from a bloodied nose”. The hall cracked into laughter. But the other anti-corruption chiefs and operatives would not laugh later when Ribadu took part in a country case studies panel.
There has been so much speculation about Ribadu’s whereabouts in the Nigerian press. But the fact is that he is currently a Senior Fellow at St Antony’s College in Oxford University in the United Kingdom, working with Professor Paul Collier, the leading authority on African economies and politics. St Antony’s College has become the sanctuary for many progressives who get into trouble in the developing world. Ribadu stays in a residence that was recently vacated by Anwal Ibrahim, the embattled former Prime Minister of Malaysia whose only offence was that he fell out of favour with his boss, Mahathir Muhammed. “Such a nice man”, Ribadu says. “he left me his plates and cutlery and kitchen utensils.” One of the persons Ribadu met on arrival at St Antony’s is John Githongo, the Kenyan newspaper columnist and anti-corruption campaigner who had to flee from Kenya in 2005, after he discovered that the majorly corrupt persons in the country are his own colleagues: Ministers and the big men of Kenyan society. Githongo got their confessions on tape, but they told him bluntly that they are the ones milking Kenya dry. One fateful day, Githongo packed his bags and fled to London, from where he sent a letter resigning his position as Permanent Secretary for Ethics and Governance in Kibaki’s NARC Government. He has now returned to Kenya where he enjoys massive media and civil society support, and his book, written by Michela Wrong and titled It’s Our Turn To Eat will be released in London on February 23. It will go on sale in Nairobi the same day.
Unlike Githongo, Ribadu did not run away immediately he discovered that he had fallen out of favour. He stayed and tried to fight the system. He was sidelined and sent to a course he didn’t ask for in Kuru near Jos. Behind his back, they gave his job to someone else, without regard to the security of tenure. Then, they demoted him in what looked like a routine administrative exercise, but the political undertones were writ large. When he tried to resist the system, they shoved him out of the graduation hall at Kuru, and his employers, the Police sent him to Siberia: what Nigerians would call the Ogbugbuaja treatment. Ribadu got lawyers and again tried to fight back. He refused to report for duty. He refused to wear the uniform of the new rank.
One day, assassins trailed him and pumped bullets into his car. Having served in the Nigeria Police for more than two decades, he could spot a warning shot if one was fired in his direction. So, Ribadu succumbed to the logic of Bob Marley’s lyrics: “He who fights and runs away, will live to fight another day.” He is not likely to come anywhere Nigeria for a while. Those who do not like his face and his work have effectively driven him out of town. But he is a determined man. “What has happened to me is just a temporary setback”, he concludes. “I am a fighter, I don’t give up. I don’t believe the people who think they have dealt with me will have the last laugh.”
Like Githongo, Ribadu is spending his period in exile to think and write. “I am working on two books”, he told me. The working title for the first book is “The Problem of Corruption in Africa: The Nigerian Experience.” He explained: “You know corruption is the biggest problem we have in Africa. It is so central to the problems we have. But to fight corruption, the biggest man in government, the President or the Prime Minister must be honest about it. That is where it starts. Americans talk about Obama. We need change in Nigeria more than America does. What I discovered is that we have a challenge to give power to ordinary Nigerians, to ordinary people, to take it from the politicians. And we don’t have time. Change is important.” He didn’t have a working title for his proposed second book. But he offered an outline of its posssible contents.
“When I look back, I realise that some of the people who liked what I did also have issues with some of the things we did. I plan to do a second book to address some of their concerns. I intend to show for example that we deliberately went after grand corruption because that is where the problem is. We interrogated the Governors, the Senate President, the Vice President. I put a Bank Director, Bulama in handcuffs. The moment we did that, the banks knew immediately that there were no sacred cows. We needed to send a strong signal that corruption will not be condoned and the cleansing process had to start from the stop. The day I took the job, I knew that it could end up like this. I knew that I could be victimised or dismissed or killed. It could have been worse. That I am alive today is by the Grace of the Almighty and I am grateful. But my position is that some people just have to make the sacrifice to save our country. I swear by the Almighty that wherever there are people who are trying to make Nigeria a better country, I will be among them. Walahi.”
Another objective Ribadu intends to achieve in the second book is to comment on a number of case studies. “People go about saying that Obasanjo used me to go after his enemies, Obasanjo didn’t use me, in fact may be it is the other way round. If you check, you will notice that the people we went after were actually Obasanjo’s people. Alamiyeseigha was very close to the President. Odili was also very close to him. Saminu Turaki was an Obasanjo man. I deliberately did not go after the opposition. Yes, we investigated Orji Kalu. We also investigated Bola Tinubu. I know the President’s people would have wanted the EFCC to go after a man like Ken Nnamani. But we needed to start with the Obasanjo people to make a point that nobody is above the law. And that was why we investigated the President himself, And we went after his daughter. I was in Kuru then, but I knew about the Iyabo case. If we want to clean up our country, then let us do it. And that was why I went after Atiku. Atiku is from the same village with me. But Nigeria is more important. It belongs to all of us, not some powerful people.”
Ribadu’s book is also a response to questions about due process and the rule of law. “People complain that we didn’t obey the rule of law, that we violated due process and they use specific instances to criticise us. I plan to respond to all those criticisms. Take a man like former IG Tafa Balogun. I didn’t like what happened myself. I was against putting him in handcuffs. But I have to be sensitive to the people who work under me. They came to me and accussed me of double standards. When I accepted the job, I was inspired by the example of Jerry Rawlings of Ghana who went after the big fish and changed his country for good. So we decided that if we could put a Bank MD in handcuffs and follow that up with an Inspector General of Police, then Nigerians would realize that we meant serious business. That was what happened. I am a human being. I make mistakes. I admit that. But I was honest about what I did. So they say we abused the rule of law? What is rule of law? The same rule of law that has now been used to recapture Nigeria?”
I told Ribadu I can’t wait to read and review his books. When are they coming out? “This year. By July. We have to keep the anti-corruption campaign alive. For me personally, there is nothing left for me other than to dedicate myself to the struggle. I am not seeking to be an Obama. But people must be prepared to make the sacrifice. We need change more than America.” How is he these days? “I sleep well these days”, he said. “My needs are minimal. Look at this pair of slippers”. I checked: an over-abused pair of slippers with worn edges and threatening holes. “I have been wearing this since 2003 and I am okay. But I must tell you I have enjoyed a lot of goodwill since I left office. I was offered jobs by many international organizations. I receive invitations to attend conferences and to write books. I came here for example from Lusaka. I am happy to know that there are people out there who have faith in human progress and integrity.”
It was soon the turn of Ribadu to participate in a panel discussion focussing on country case studies. There were contributions from representatives of Nigeria’s EFCC and the ICPC, but Ribadu’s comments had a special accent which struck a chord among the participants. He said: “If you fight corruption, it fights back. If you go after petty corruption nothing will happen to you, But if you go after grand corruption, you’d be taking on the politicians and they have the money. And they will come after you, But you can choose to go to bed with them and you’d continue to be Chairman or Director, and you can go to conferences and enjoy tea and collect estacodes. But I made a choice, I decided to go after the big ones, even if they were the ones that put me there, I investigated President Obasanjo, I took his statement myself. I went after his daughter, a Senator, I went after Governors, I charged all of them to court. One of them offered me $500, 000 US and a house in Seychelles and an aircraft, but I rejected all of that. By the time I left EFCC, I had 275 convictions in a country that never had one on cases of grand corruption, I charged the Vice President to court – somebody from my village. I proved that it can be done.
“It is the most difficult work to do. To confront it will require people who make sacrifice like Mandela, like the people who fought for independence in our various countries. It requires people who have courage, people who do not think that they want to enjoy. If you want to enjoy, it is not the kind of work you can do. I have no regrets. It requires a strong will to make sacrifice. You have to make a fundamental decision. It can even mean you lose your life. They will try to compromise you, They will try to blackmail you. I survived an assassination attempt. I have bullets in my car. I intend to keep that car for life. I have no regrets. You have the media. You have to carry them along, be open, be accountable. I have never given a penny to anybody in the media, But there is no newspaper in Nigeria that has not made me Man of the Year, even though I charged some publishers to court and even threatened to close down newspapers. Which shows that people are good. If they see that you mean well, they will support you. I am out now, but Nigeria has changed. You need international co-operation. You also need to build capacity.
“We built a Financial Intelligence Unit, you have to be in control of Financial intelligence in your country. because money is at the root of all forms of corruption. If you track the money, you can stop the corruption. Be on the side of your own people. Don’t be on the side of the leaders. A President will go, but the country will be there, Those who are in control, it is only temporary. History will judge you and you will never regret.”