Powerful Nigerian politicians are seeking to derail attempts to fight high-level corruption by weakening the main anti-graft agency and hounding Nuhu Ribadu, its former head, officials within the unit have warned.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, say that the new leadership of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has removed dozens of senior investigators from cases against seven former state governors charged last year with looting public funds.

“The view is that of a total takeover of the levers of control by the people who are supposed to be on trial,” said one EFCC official.

Mr Ribadu, who led the EFCC after its establishment in 2003 under Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president, is regarded at home as the first Nigerian to have struck fear into a political class estimated to have stolen billions of dollars of public funds accrued mainly from the country’s oil wealth.

Abroad he is respected for having led an unprecedented campaign to prosecute theft of government money and for collaborating with foreign police forces to curtail the e-mail scams and fraud for which Nigeria had become infamous.

But the softly-spoken police officer, whose modest lifestyle contrasted with that of many of his targets, also attracted fierce criticism. A widespread perception that Mr Obasanjo was using him as a tool to persecute political opponents and exclude them from running at the polls cost Mr Ribadu some of his credibility.

The EFCC is one of several institutions, promoted by the former government as the face of a new Nigeria, to have been shaken up since Umaru Yar’Adua became president in May last year.

Mr Ribadu is now attending a mandatory training course at an institute in central Nigeria. He was replaced by Farida Waziri, a career police officer who was plucked from retirement to take over the EFCC in June.

Officials who worked with Mr Ribadu until he was removed from his post by the new government, say he has been subject to increasingly public harassment designed to discredit him and his operatives.

Femi Babafemi, the EFCC spokesman, rebuffed the claims and said the new leadership’s decision to charge suspects including two former state governors, one of whom was arraigned on Tuesday, proved it was still committed to fighting corruption.

“No fewer than five or six big cases have been tackled and are already in court,” Mr Babafemi said.

This week the Police Service Commission demoted Mr Ribadu, along with 139 other officers, on the grounds that their advancement had contravened rules. Mr Ribadu, who moved rapidly through the ranks while chair of the EFCC, was demoted to deputy commissioner from assistant inspector-general and summoned for questioning by the state security service. Motives for the summons were unclear.

Police also this week detained Ibrahim Magu, the former head of the economic governance team at the EFCC, who led many of the investigations against state governors and is a key witness in money-laundering cases in both Nigeria and the UK. 

Nigerian graft

Published: August 11 2008

When Nuhu Ribadu, Nigeria’s former anti-corruption chief, launched high-profile cases against venal politicians, his earlier campaign against ordinary conmen fell out of the limelight. Mr Ribadu was the first Nigerian police officer to win mass convictions for the e-mail scams that lure greedy and unsuspecting targets into millions of dollars of losses around the world, causing untold damage to legitimate Nigerian business.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) he chaired was set up by former president Olusegun Obasanjo as an urgent response to the chronic failure of other institutions: the police, public prosecution and judiciary. Arguably, it has provided the biggest gains in cleaning up Nigeria since the military handed back power to civilians in 1999.

As well as curtailing e-mail and internet fraud, the EFCC has helped to recover billions of dollars of looted state funds. It has built prosecution cases against nine former state governors on embezzlement charges. Its emergence as a strong, if imperfect, institution helped to underpin confidence among foreign investors about broader economic reforms in Africa’s biggest oil producer.

There can therefore be no confusion as to what Mr Ribadu’s demotion last week and hounding by state security services, signifies. Under new EFCC leadership, most of the officers he trained and worked with have been sent to remote outposts. Police have now detained Ibrahim Magu, a lead EFCC investigator and key witness in money-laundering cases in Nigeria and the UK. At the same time, allies of corrupt state governors are colonising positions in Umaru Yar’Adua’s administration.

Mr Ribadu’s critics claim, with some reason, that he was used to neutralise political opponents of the former president. However, by defanging the EFCC altogether, President Yar’Adua risks a much more worrying offence – caving in to vested interests who over decades have brought the country to its knees. In the quest for a more prosperous and stable Nigeria, there is no more important battle than the battle against corruption. It is not only a moral matter. Future oil supply depends on it. No-one should need reminding of this, least of all Nigeria’s head of state.

Nigeria demotes former anti-graft chief

ABUJA, Aug 6 - The former head of Nigeria’s anti-corruption police, credited with prosecuting several top former officials, has been demoted because his promotion under the previous government was irregular, police said.

Nuhu Ribadu’s efforts to fight graft in one of the world’s most corrupt countries had been applauded by many Nigerians and by foreign investors.

His removal as head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in December prompted campaigners to question President Umaru Yar’Adua’s commitment to wage war against graft in Africa’s top oil producer.

Nigeria’s police regulatory authority demoted Ribadu and 139 other police officers late on Tuesday, saying they were given irregular promotions by former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

”Their promotions were not based on the established criteria and was a total breach of sections ... of the 1999 Constitution and Police Service Commission Act,” said Parry Osayande, chairman of the Police Service Commission.

Ribadu, who was assistant inspector general, was demoted two ranks to deputy commissioner of police.

The anti-corruption commission was prosecuting seven state governors from the last administration when Ribadu was removed and sent on a one-year policy and strategic studies course at a remote institute in central Nigeria.

This prompted allegations that the government had caved in to pressure from politicians anxious to stop investigations into their finances only months after President Yar’Adua took office pledging zero tolerance for corruption.

Farida Waziri, a retired top ranking police officer chosen by Yar’Adua, took the helm at the EFCC in June and has since charged two more former governors with corruption.

But prosecution has been slow and anti-graft activists are worried that there has been no significant progress in the court cases of the nine former governors, some charged more than a year ago and released on bail.

In 2000, a year after Obasanjo took office, Nigeria came last in Transparency International’s index of corruption perceptions. By, 2007 it had risen to 147th place on a list of 179 countries.

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