The Anti-Corruption Crusader and Democracy in Nigeria

September 24th, 2010

In January of next year Nigerians will head to the polls to elect their next president.

Nigeria’s exercise in democracy has so far lasted slightly over a decade, beginning with the country’s transition to civilian government in 1999 after a long period of military rule punctured with failed stabs at democracy. To alleviate ethnic and religious divisions, the current system includes a power-sharing agreement between the Muslim North and Christian South.  By law, each term should alternate between a Northerner and Southerner, though the last three presidents have muddled the intended fluctuations.

There are those who claim this election will be a pivotal point for the nation and perhaps a determining year for the nation’s democratic experiment.  But pessimists have called Nigeria’s democracy a “sham” and pronounced it “dead” before.  The truth is that although the country faltered with the death of President Yar’Ardua (a Northern Muslim), the accession and political success of President Goodluck Jonathan (a Christian Southerner, who was vice president under Yar’Ardua) have shown that Nigerian democracy is still alive.  It might even be a little bit resilient.

But let’s not dust off the “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet.  The country remains mired with ethnic strife, threats of sectarian violence, poor infrastructure, rampant poverty, and a large number of people living with HIV/AIDS.  All of these factors may be destabilizing politically and democratically.  The most consequential of these variables is probably Nigeria’s rampant corruption, which experts from the U.S., UK, France, and Germany fear will rob Nigeria of credible elections.

Enter Presidential candidate Nuhu Ribadu.

In 2003 Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed Ribadu, a former lawyer, as the first head of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).  Ribadu immediately set about his work tackling corruption at every level of government.  This included convicting and improsoning his own boss, Tafa Balogun, on charges of money laundering and theft.  His labors and courage garnered him praise from the UN, many anti-corruption organizations worldwide (including this one), and several Western democracies.  He was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Including the President’s.

Not too many years later, Ribadu’s crusade against corruption turned out to be a little too effective and a bit of an inconvenience for Obasanjo.  So in 2007 the President dismissed Ribadu by ordering him to attend a mandatory year-long training course at the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies in Nigeria. Later he was charged with failing to declare assets, though the claims are unsubstantiated.  After two attempts on his life, Ribadu fled the country and has spent the last two years in exile.

When President Jonathan officially took power in May of this year, he dropped the criminal charges against Ribadu and the “anti-corruption crusader” returned to Nigeria in June.  Now the two men will oppose each other in the upcoming presidential campaign.

I don’t mean hold Ribadu on a pedestal.  While in office, he was effective at battling corruption and out of office he remained a poignant international voice against its evils.  His purpose seems clear, despite harsh criticisms from his enemies, which are mostly composed of those who were on the other end of his diligent campaign.

This is not to say he would make a flawless statesman.  President Jonathan has also shown effective leadership and, despite a short tenure, has clearly outlined his intentions to tackle greed and corruption in Nigerian politics.  His immediate move to return Ribadu to Nigeria, while perhaps a bit self-serving as Ribadu’s reputation is golden among Western leaders, is nonetheless an indication of his commitment to these goals.

Though Nigeria has other candidates (and some are more likely contenders than Ribadu), these two men stand out for their integrity and commitment to serving their country honestly and effectively.  For a while, Nigeria’s fledgling democracy will rest with individuals and their convictions, not with institutions.  I hope this election is not, as some have predicted, a “brink” for the African country, but rather an opportunity to elect a strong, honest leader who will continue to establish and embed Nigeria’s hopeful democratic system.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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