(Lagos) - Nigeria's leading anti-corruption campaigner has in recent weeks been subject to an escalating campaign of harassment, threats, and an apparent attempt on his life, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian government to protect the campaigner, Nuhu Ribadu, former chairman of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
In an interview with Human Rights Watch in Nigeria, Ribadu, a long-serving police official, said he feared for his life and believed the threats against him - including shots fired at him in late September and telephoned death threats - were linked to his work at the EFCC. "I fear for my life," Ribadu told Human Rights Watch. "I have made a lot of enemies." He was removed from his position in December 2007 after the commission arrested and indicted on corruption charges a powerful politician who was known to be close to the president.
"The campaign of intimidation against Mr. Ribadu appears aimed at silencing a key voice in the crucial fight against corruption in Nigeria," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Nigerian government and President Yar'Adua need to protect Ribadu and anyone else who dares to speak out against the corrupt and powerful."
During his tenure at the EFCC - from 2003 to 2007 - Ribadu pursued politically sensitive investigations into suspected corrupt activities of powerful ruling-party officials, though the institution's credibility was at times tarnished by its apparent selective prosecution of political opponents of then-president Olusegun Obasanjo. The EFCC under Ribadu indicted hundreds of individuals collectively implicated in the theft of several billion dollars. These included a former inspector general of police, several former state governors, and politically influential businessmen.
Despite pledges to allow the EFCC to pursue an impartial "zero-tolerance" effort to pursue corrupt officials, the government of President Umaru Yar'Adua - now in its second year - has seriously undermined the fledgling anti-corruption efforts that began under his predecessor.
Ribadu described to Human Rights Watch the apparent attempt on his life in late September, while he was driving from Jos to Abuja, the capital: "At around 6:00 that morning, I noticed a car with about four men in it following me. I stopped at a filling station and it passed me, but some minutes later, I saw the car coming toward me from the other direction. As the vehicle approached, a man in the back opened fire on my vehicle with a pistol. The three bullets which hit my car cracked a part of my windscreen, broke the side-view mirror, and hit a side panel on the car." Ribadu was unhurt in the incident.
More recently, Ribadu said he had received credible information about another planned attempt on his life. He also said he has received threatening phone calls in which he is advised to "say his last prayers." "The harassment, the intimidation is meant to put fear in me, to break me, but I am going to stand and continue standing," he told Human Rights Watch.
In December 2007, the EFCC sent shock waves through the political establishment by arresting the powerful former Delta State governor James Ibori and charging him with 103 counts of corruption, including an alleged attempt to bribe Ribadu with US$15 million in cash to drop the case against him. The EFCC's decision to prosecute Ibori was notable because the former governor was widely seen as politically untouchable. He is among the wealthiest politicians in Nigeria and is known to be a close associate of Yar'Adua. Two weeks later, the inspector general of police ordered Ribadu to resign and attend a 10-month police training course.
In August 2008, Ribadu was demoted from the rank of assistant inspector general of police, on the grounds that promotions he received while at the EFCC had failed to comply with police procedure. On November 22 he was forcefully removed by state security agents from the graduation ceremony that followed the course he was ordered to attend.
In November, he was officially informed of his future posting to a regional police headquarters in Edo State, with duties that would require working in Edo, Delta, and Bayelsa states. Ribadu firmly believes this posting would leave him vulnerable because the powerful former governors from all three of these states were investigated, charged, or convicted of corruption by the Ribadu-led EFCC. Ribadu is also a material witness in the corruption trial against Ibori, should it take place.
Following the appointment of Farida Waziri as the new EFCC chair in May, the commission sacked at least 12 of its top investigators. Several were later reassigned to the states whose governors they had investigated. In February 2008, a senior EFCC official was attacked by armed thugs. In August, the former head of the unit investigating Ibori was arrested and held without charge for several weeks. Judicial personnel and other political observers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said certain actions by the attorney general have undermined anti-corruption efforts both in Nigeria and in the United Kingdom, including intervening on behalf of Ibori in a British court case involving Ibori's alleged embezzlement and money laundering of US$35 million of Delta State funds.
Although Waziri has indicted several senior-level politicians, including three former governors and the head of the Nigerian Ports Authority, on corruption charges, the high-profile cases initiated under Ribadu, including that of Ibori, have been effectively stalled. Meanwhile, the EFCC has initiated an investigation into Ribadu's acquisition of property - a move considered by many observers to be politically motivated. Ribadu has on several occasions publicly declared his assets.
Nigeria, the world's eighth-largest oil exporter, suffers from rampant government corruption and mismanagement, which has led to gross violations of the right to basic health care and education. Despite Nigeria's tremendous wealth, its abject poverty ranks among the worst in the world. Public funds that could have been spent on improving the lives of ordinary citizens have instead been squandered and stolen by members of Nigeria's political elite.
Corruption also lies at the heart of Nigeria's most pressing human rights problems. Many politicians have used stolen government revenues to sponsor political violence in order to rig elections marked by violence and fraud. Nigeria's compromised police force has consistently turned a blind eye to these and other abuses by well-connected politicians.