Nuhu Ribadu: Nigeria's Relentless Corruption Hunter

January 28, 2010BY Sam Kennedy
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Nuhu Ribadu was on his way to Abuja, the Nigerian capital, one morning when he noticed a small car that appeared to be trailing him. As Nigeria's top financial crimes prosecutor, he'd made a habit of looking over his shoulder. And so, he pulled his Honda Accord into a gas station to let the other car pass by.

When it was no longer in sight, he pulled back onto the road. But suddenly the car was racing at him from the opposite direction. A man in the back seat was pointing a pistol out the window. He took aim and fired.

Nuhu Ribadu

Nigeria's former top prosecutor, Nuhu Ribadu.

Between 2003 and 2007, Ribadu was chairman of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Suffice it to say, during his tenure, he made a lot of powerful enemies. Under his leadership, the newly created EFCC sent prominent businessmen and high-level government officials, including Ribadu's own boss, the inspector general of police, to jail.

In a country whose ruling class has shamelessly plundered hundreds of billions of dollars in oil profits, Ribadu's record also made him a national hero -- not to mention the great hope of many outside observers. In recent years, development experts in the West have come to regard corruption as one of the critical underlying problems of Sub-Sahara Africa.

During a speech in Ghana last summer, President Obama underscored this point, recalling the "tribalism and patronage and nepotism" faced by his Kenyan father. "We know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many," he said.

One of the first big international criminal cases to test Ribadu's new agency involved the Houston oil services conglomerate KBR.

When it comes to fighting corruption, the United States has a legitimate claim to the moral high ground. With the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, it became the first country in the world to ban the bribing of foreign officials. Yet, the American private sector has often fallen short of the ideals enshrined in the law. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Nigeria.

One of the first big international criminal cases to test Ribadu's new agency involved the Houston oil services conglomerate KBR, which orchestrated a brazen $180 million bribery scheme that over the course of a decade reached into the highest levels of three successive Nigerian administrations. Ribadu's pursuit of the Nigerian officials who took KBR's money, he says, would later contribute to his undoing.

"Bang!" he says, recalling what happened at the gas station that day in September 2008. Bulletproof glass "Is what saved my life," he says. Ribadu is one of the big stories of the last decade in Nigeria - one full of hope, intrigue and ultimately heartache.

Taking on Nigeria's Elite

In 2003, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had run for office on an anti-corruption platform, picked Ribadu from relative obscurity to run the country's highest anti-corruption office. As head of the EFCC, Ribadu, who had climbed the ranks of the Nigerian police as a prosecutor, took his country by surprise, fighting its pervasive corruption with unprecedented success.

For four decades of postcolonial history, Nigerian law enforcement had turned a blind eye to bribery and embezzlement. But Ribadu ushered in a new era; under his leadership, the EFCC managed one corruption conviction after another.

I met Ribadu last spring at a conference at U.C. Berkeley. Following the attempt on his life, he had fled Nigeria, bolting in disguise via a remote border crossing.

I met Ribadu last spring at a conference at U.C. Berkeley. Following the attempt on his life, he had fled Nigeria, bolting in disguise via a remote border crossing, and was about to begin a new job as a fellow with the Center for Global Development, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Ribadu, who looks much younger than his 49 years, is slender, bespectacled and unfailingly polite. I was struck by his soft-spoken demeanor. His exile means he is separated from his wife and six children; but despite this, he betrays little bitterness, even when talking about the kleptocrats he took on.

"It wasn't personal," he tells me more than once.

That combination of fierceness and detached professionalism made Ribadu a trusted ally of other law enforcement agencies. Tom Fuentes, the recently retired assistant director of international operations at the FBI, and Helen Garlick, a former assistant director at the UK's Serious Fraud Office, were also at the conference, and greeted Ribadu like an old friend.

"I was very struck by his passion, his dedication, his absolute commitment to make his country better," Fuentes said, and to ensuring that the country's natural resources went to toward helping the Nigerian people and improving the country.

By taking on these powerful individuals, Ribadu "knew that he was making very dangerous enemies," he said, "and his life was in danger in conducting those investigations."

It was about the time Ribadu was getting going at the EFCC, in late 2003, that news of the KBR bribery scheme began to leak out of France. A French magistrate, while investigating another matter, stumbled on evidence that KBR, formerly known as Kellogg, Brown & Root, along with three other companies belonging to an international consortium, had set aside $180 million to pay off Nigerian officials. Their objective: to win and hold onto a multibillion-dollar contract to build a huge liquefied natural gas plant.

"Right from the moment it came out, I understood it must be a very big deal," Ribadu says. "It was the biggest of all the big contracts that took place in Nigeria in the 1990s."

Ribadu flew to France to meet with the magistrate and assigned a team of EFCC investigators to the case (PDF). One of the suspected bribe takers interviewed by his team was M.D. Yusuf, who in the mid-1990s was the Nigerian government-appointed chairman of the liquefied natural gas project.

Ribadu says Yusuf did not deny getting money from a KBR consultant, but described the payment as a loan. (Some reports in the Nigerian press put the size of purported loan at $75,000.)

Today, much of what KBR was up to in Nigeria is a matter of public record. Both KBR and its former chief executive officer, Albert "Jack" Stanley, last year pleaded guilty to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Stanley, who promised to cooperate with investigators, faces up to seven years in prison. (His sentencing, which has been repeatedly delayed, has been rescheduled for February.)

And KBR, along with its former parent, Halliburton, was fined more than $500 million - a record for a U.S. company in a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case.

But back in 2003, Ribadu had little concrete evidence to work with. He flew to France two more times, and to Britain and the U.S., but was unable to get access to key documents and witnesses, including Stanley. "We had allegations that (Yusuf) took money, but nothing in support of it," Ribadu says. "There was no way for me to have taken them [Yusuf and other suspects] to court."

Unable to pursue this investigation, Ribadu turned his attention to other matters. His agency shut down the Nigerian email scammers that had long plagued computer users in the U.S. and elsewhere. It convicted the inspector general of police on charges of embezzling more than $121 million in public funds; and investigated the vice president for his alleged roll in a bribery scheme involving a U.S. politician.

Ribadu didn't have enough evidence to convict the vice president, but Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson was found guilty in a U.S. court in 2009 of conspiring to bribe, racketeering and money laundering and using his office to benefit a number of personal business ventures in Africa. (Infamously, $90,000 in marked bills was found wrapped in tinfoil bundles inside Jefferson's freezer.)

Critics accused Ribadu of only going after President Obasanjo's political enemies. They also said he was abusing his powers and called him a hatchet man for the president. But the crackdown was wildly popular with Nigeria's long-suffering public and the Nigerian press crowned him "Man of the Year."

Watch a clip of Ribadu interviewed by correspondent Lowell Bergman.

Ribadu also took on Nigeria's powerful governors, known for treating their states as personal fiefdoms (PDF). He announced that 31 of Nigeria's 36 governors could face corruption charges once they left office. (Nigerian law prevents sitting governors from being prosecuted.) One of those figures, James Ibori, governor of the oil-rich Delta State and believed to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful politicians in the country, was high on Ribadu's list.

By all accounts, the 51-year-old Ibori is charismatic and savvy. Born into the family of a tribal chief, he was educated at some of Nigeria's best schools and the University of Benin, where he studied economics and statistics. According to one pro-Ibori website, he worked for Mobile Oil and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. before entering politics. He was first elected governor of Delta State in 1999 and re-elected in 2003 -- a period during which his lavish lifestyle seemed to far exceed his official salary of roughly $25,000 a year.

By the summer of 2007, authorities had taken notice (PDF). The Metropolitan Police in London, working with Ribadu's team, accused Ibori's British lawyer, and Ibori's wife and mistress, both of whom were living in Britain at the time, with helping the governor launder tens of millions of dollars.

The money, which British police put at more than $100 million, went to buy an armor-plated Mercedes, a posh London residence and a Bombardier jet, among other things, according to British newspaper reports. (The three have since been formally charged, and the first of their trials, began last September, is scheduled to resume in February.)

The money, which British police put at more than $100 million, went to buy an armor-plated Mercedes, a posh London residence and a Bombardier jet.

Back in Nigeria, feeling the net closing in, Ibori allegedly tried to buy his freedom.

As Ribadu recounts events, he and Ibori met at the house of a mutual associate. The two men chatted for a while, then Ibori, who had no idea that Ribadu was wearing a hidden recorder, brought out two large bags stuffed with $15 million in stacks of one-hundred-dollar-bills. "We took the money [to the Central Bank of Nigeria]. We allowed him to go," Ribadu says. "We were building up the case."

Those recordings have not been made public. But last year, Mrs. Farida Waziri, Nigeria's current anti-corruption chief, reportedly confirmed that $15 million was received by Nigeria's Central Bank.

Ribadu says his team kept tabs on Ibori's whereabouts by monitoring his cell phone signal. When he was eventually brought in, Ribadu says, "He was begging, pleading... He wanted to give me another $15 million," he says. He recalls what he said next to the former governor: "I'm just doing my job, James. It's the right thing to do. You must understand, it's not personal."

Ribadu's Final Act

Arresting James Ibori on 103 counts of corruption in late 2007 turned out to be one of Ribadu's last acts as chairman of the EFCC.

Two weeks later, he was abruptly dismissed by Nigeria's newly elected president, Umaru Yar'Aduaa, a close ally of Ibori. Indeed, the former governor was rumored to have bankrolled Yar-Aduaa's campaign.

"The removal of Nuhu Ribadu is not about the removal of one individual... an effective agency has been tampered with. The trust of the nation has been abused."

The move shocked many Nigerians. The country's Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka captured the public's mood in one scathing editorial: "The removal of Nuhu Ribadu is not about the removal of one individual... an effective agency has been tampered with... The trust of the nation has been abused."

At first, it was unclear what would become of Ribadu, leaving hope he would be reinstated. Officially, he was being sent to a school for government bureaucrats. In theory, he could return to the EFCC once he graduated.

But then President Yar-Aduaa appointed M.D. Yusuf to lead a commission on reforming the Nigerian police, the same man Ribadu's agency had questioned years earlier in the KBR bribery case, and who had described the payment as a loan. According to Ribadu, this left Yusuf free to install a new EFCC chair, thereby ensuring Ribadu would never complete his investigation into which Nigerian officials received KBR's bribes.

A Life in Exile

In Washington, DC, I met Ribadu at the Center for Global Development, where he was settling into his new job. We stepped out for a coffee and he reflected on what he had gone through back home on the other side of the world.

He said he was "knocked out" by his enemies and mentions two by name: Yusuf and Ibori. Ibori, the powerful former Delta State governor, it appears, had also emerged from Ribadu's anti-corruption era in tact. In a controversial ruling in December 2009, a Nigerian federal judge dismissed all charges against Ibori, saying there was no clear evidence against him.

"We are back to square one," Ribadu told me. "Corruption has taken over the engine of government in Nigeria. It's what runs everything."

Although he is now living in exile, Ribadu's name continues to come up in discussions of potential candidates in the next presidential election in 2011. Ribadu is clearly intrigued by the idea. He says he has broad support among Nigeria's diverse ethnic groups, which could propel him to victory in a fair election -- provided he could somehow get such an election in a country where votes are bought and sold.

The former prosecutor has a term for what he believes plagues his country and his continent. He calls it "grand corruption." It starts with political leadership and big business and spreads into every corner of society, he says. AIDS, terrorism and civil war are but some of the symptoms. If you really want to help Africa, he says, put an end to corruption.

share your reactions


Yaro Maikyau - Abuja, Abuja, Nigeria
We can't escape from reality, Ribadu have made a mark in the Nigerian history in anything positive, whether you like it or not. In fact our prayer now if God will answer it is to give us Ribadu as a president so that our country Nigeria can come back to its original foundation by our forefathers. We have trustworthy and honest individuals in this country who are ready to sacrifices themselves to see things going the way it is suppose to be. Ribadu, El-rufa'i, Former Gen. Buhari, the present Lagos State Governor, and many others from other part of the country can make a big difference. But can they allow them to be at helm of affairs of this country? time will tell. May God continue to protect Nuhu Ribadu and Nasiru El-rufa'i wherever they are.

London, UK
My heart sank the day, I heard over the internet news that Ribadu had been removed from office. I also knew immediately that the government that removed him was going to pay lip service to the fight against corruption. Little wonder then that recently, a retired general and businessman shamelessly came out in public to say he was giving $100 million dollars, part of a whopping profit of $500 million dollars he made as profit from being allocated an oil prospecting block by another corrupt, but now deceased general. I do appreciate this balanced reporting in this PBS sponsored write up.

Cliff Cato - Georgetown, Guyana
Shameful! The world today has the ability and technology to pretty much rid itself of these corrupt practices.The practice of money laundering and bribery by using plastic and checks thereby leaving a paper trail. An individual is less likely to commit these acts with a paper trail leading back to them. The billion dollar question is do we have the will and the stomach to do this, for it will expos us all.


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