Obasanjo and the Republic of Ribadu
During the celebration of his 79th birthday anniversary, former President Olusegun Obasanjo went down memory lane, recalling with evident pathos, the golden era when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, was the terror of pubic officers. Obasanjo rightly deserves credit for creating the commission and appointing a fearless cop, Nuhu Ribadu, as the first helmsman. Before his guests at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, OOPL, Abeokuta, he extolled the exploits of Ribadu and asked pointedly: “What has happened since Nuhu left?” Then he answered his own question, declaring that since Ribadu was hounded out of the job, EFCC has virtually become “a toothless bulldog.”
Obasanjo made the declaration shortly after Ribadu stole into the OOPL auditorium in the company of some of his friends. A select audience had gathered to celebrate the official birthday of Africa’s busiest statesman. Obasanjo’s birthday is an approximation like Nigeria’s population figure. No one is sure of Baba’s birthday since the only information he is sure of is that he was born on Ifo Market Day. Ifo is a town in Ogun State close to Obasanjo’s ancestral home in Ibogun Olaogun. But he is sure of Ribadu’s exploits and justly proud of them.
Since he lost the job, Ribadu has sought other lines of career but without expected result. He was once a high-profile exile who finally returned home in triumph. He even tried to be President of the Republic, making a spirited showing at the poll. He tried to be governor of his home state Adamawa but failed. All his efforts to create another image for his post-EFCC career have been a failure. He remains our EFCC man, a high-profile marketer of the institution and a successful showman who knew how to handle the public and the press. Despite his excesses and his ex-Cathedral pronouncements on some public office holders, Nigerians knew that he pursued that job with singular passion and fearlessness.
Ribadu was one of the many men and women who defined the Obasanjo Presidency. These men and women were filled with urgency and purpose to make a difference. And they did make a difference. Think of what the banking sector would have been without the years of Chief Joseph Sanusi and Prof. Chukwuma Charles Soludo? We recall the Law Reforms started by Chief Bola Ige and carried on by his successors, especially Chief Bayo Ojo. There was the opening up of the education sectors, especially higher education, with the reforms instituted by Prof. Tunde Adeniran and later Prof. Babalola Borisade and Oby Ezekwesili. There was also the reform of the aviation sector by Kema Chikwe that saved our country from its reputation as a land of desperate skies. There was the attempt to reform the power sector, started by Chief Ige and later worked on by Dr. Olusegun Agagu and Dr Olu Agunloye. There was Yayale Ahmed who spearheaded the Civil Service reforms.
But none of these outstanding men and women embodied those desperate days like the Turbulent Three: Nuhu Ribadu, Malam El Rufai, the minister of the Federal Capital Territory and the late Dora Akunyili, the Director-General of the National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC. El-Rufai, whose engaging autobiography, The Accidental Public Servant, documented his exploits as the Mayor of Abuja, dared to march on dangerous grounds in his effort to enforce town-planning regulations in Federal Capital Territory. Akunyili went to war against counterfeit drugs and those merchants of death who dominated the trade. She nearly lost her life in the war and when ultimately she died of cancer related illness, some Nigerians believe it may have a bearing on her tour of duty as the boss of NAFDAC.
But in this field of stars, Ribadu stood out. Though he was a police officer, he quickly inhabited the office with purpose and authority, filling pubic officers with dread. Obasanjo recalled last Saturday that during that era, “the fear of Ribadu was the beginning of wisdom.” At that time, the EFCC prosecuted many high-profile cases involving ministers, a Senate president, several permanent secretaries and an inspector-general of police. Attempts were made on Ribadu’s life. Once he was poisoned and had to be evacuated urgently abroad for treatment.
One of the many high profile cases he investigated was that of the then governor of Delta State, Chief James Ibori, who was accused of stealing more than five billion dollars from the state coffers. Ibori, though covered by Constitutional immunity, knew he was under investigation. The President had called him and asked him to refund the money. Ibori disputed the figure but ultimately agreed to refund three billion dollars. The President agreed that he could pay in installments. However, Ibori decided to bribe his way out of trouble after Obasanjo renewed Ribadu’s appointment for a second term. His emissaries took 15 million dollars in cash to Ribadu in Abuja. When Ribadu reported the incident to the President, Obasanjo instructed him to take the cash to the Central Bank. Said the President: “We would record it as Ibori’s first installment to Delta State.” Ibori had other ideas and after a convoluted chase, he ended up in a British prison.
Today not many people would remember the name of the current EFCC boss, but there is no doubt that the agency has come alive again. The agency and its sister agency, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, are hunting down suspected corrupt government officials and politicians who may have abused their offices. It is not difficult to conjecture that the renewed energy of the agency is a direct result of the change of guards at the Aso-Rock Presidential Villa. If Muhammadu Buhari were not the President, what kind of music would the EFCC be dancing to now?
This shows the fragility of our national institutions. It is this fragility that allows a public officer to allegedly divert to other causes and interests billions of dollars meant for the purchase of arms to fight the Boko Haram terrorists. Our leaders need to understand the importance of building strong institutions that can survive the reign of weak, corrupt or compromised leaders. It is a national indictment if the Republic can only work well when people like Ribadu are in charge. We also need to create institutions that would be strong enough not to allow anyone to keep part of the national patrimony in his soak-away pit.
Obasanjo recalled that in the early years of his presidency, he had travelled to some African and Asian countries in the company of about five governors. It was a punishing trip for sometimes they visited two countries in one day. For the old soldier, it was just in the line of normal duty, but for their excellences, it was rather too punishing. One by one, the governors abandoned the President. Some left in South Korea, some in China. “By the time we got to Egypt, only Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola of Osun was left,” Obasanjo told his audience last week.
Such desperate devotion to duty is good when a lot is at stake. However, we have seen from the benefits of hindsight that we need to create stronger institutions that would respond to the needs of a free, democratic society based on the Rule of Law and respect for human rights. Thank God that the EFCC is coming out of its recent history stronger as an institution beyond the shadow of whoever is the chairman. It is such institutional profiles that are desperately needed to discipline the propensities of public office holders to think and behave as if they are also Kabiyesi with limited tenure.