August 25, 2011


Corruption is so pervasive in Nigeria that it has turned public service for many into a kind of criminal enterprise. Graft has fueled political violence, denied millions of Nigerians access to even the most basic health and education services, and reinforced police abuses and other widespread patterns of human rights violations.

This report analyzes the most promising effort Nigeria’s government has ever undertaken to fight corruption—the work of its Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Soon after it was established in December 2002, the EFCC began pursuing corruption cases in a way that publicly challenged the ironclad impunity enjoyed by Nigeria’s political elite.

Since its inception, the EFCC has arraigned 30 nationally prominent political figures on corruption charges and has recovered, according to the EFCC, some US$11 billion through its efforts. But many of the corruption cases against the political elite have made little progress in the courts: there have been only four convictions to date and those convicted have faced relatively little or no prison time. Other senior political figures who have been widely implicated in corruption have not been prosecuted. At this writing, not a single politician was serving prison time for any of these alleged crimes. Despite its promise, the EFCC has fallen far short of its potential and eight years after its inception is left with a battered reputation and an uncertain record of accomplishment.

This report examines the EFCC’s record against high-level corruption and the reasons for its shortcomings. Human Rights Watch believes that in spite of myriad setbacks, a stronger and more independent EFCC represents Nigeria’s most promising avenue to make tangible progress in the fight against corruption in the near future. In large part, this is because the EFCC is the only Nigerian government institution that has posed a meaningful challenge to the impunity enjoyed by corrupt and powerful members of the political elite. This report explains pragmatic steps the Nigerian government can take towards that goal.

Most analysis of the EFCC has focused on the commission’s two very different leaders. Nuhu Ribadu, the EFCC’s first head, built the institution into what it is. The media-savvy and dynamic Ribadu regularly and publicly declared war on corrupt politicians. But his legacy was tarnished by evidence that his anti-corruption agenda was selective, dictated at least in part by the political whims of then-president, Olusegun Obasanjo. Ribadu was forced from office just two weeks after he tried to prosecute powerful former Delta State governor James Ibori, a close associate of Obasanjo’s successor in office, Umaru Yar’Adua.

Current EFCC chairman, Farida Waziri, who took over in 2008, was brought in to replace Ribadu. Critics allege that, under Waziri, the EFCC’s anti-corruption work has grown timid and lethargic in comparison with Ribadu’s tenure. Many leading activists and political figures have called for her removal and some have accused her of being corrupt.

Human Rights Watch believes that the character and capacity of the EFCC’s leadership is an important issue and calls for the allegations that Waziri has proven ineffectual to be investigated. But this report shows that in terms of tangible results, Waziri’s record against high-level corruption is comparable to Ribadu’s, and neither of them can claim much real success. The EFCC has secured only four convictions against nationally prominent political figures—one of those, Lucky Igbinedion, former Edo State governor, was given a sentence so light after pleading guilty that it made a mockery of his conviction.

Acts of spectacular incompetence have afflicted the EFCC under both Ribadu and Waziri. Most egregiously, the EFCC under Ribadu failed to appeal a 2007 legally tenuous court ruling that purported to bar the EFCC from investigating alleged crimes by former Rivers State governor Peter Odili. That ruling effectively derailed what could have been the commission’s most important case. Ribadu never publicly explained how or why this happened—and it was on his watch. For her part, Waziri says she has never looked into the reasons why the EFCC allowed that case to be derailed and has made no tangible progress in overturning the ruling in the case.

Not all of the EFCC’s failures are its own fault, however. There are enormous institutional hurdles to any honest effort to prosecute corruption in Nigeria. At a fundamental level, Nigeria’s political system continues to reward rather than punish corruption. When ruling party chieftain Olabode George emerged from prison in 2011 after serving a two-and-a-half year sentence following a landmark EFCC prosecution, he was treated to a rapturous welcome by members of Nigeria’s political elite including former president Obasanjo and then-defense minister, Ademola Adetokunbo. The message was unmistakable—proven criminality is no bar to the highest echelons of politics in Nigeria.

The courts can also be an obstacle to accountability. Most of the EFCC’s cases against nationally prominent political figures have been stalled in the courts for years without the trials even commencing. Nigeria’s weak and overburdened judiciary offers seemingly endless opportunities for skilled defense lawyers to secure interminable and sometimes frivolous delays.

In some EFCC cases, the appearance of judicial impropriety has also been striking. When the EFCC brought 170 criminal counts against former governor James Ibori, a judge sitting in Ibori’s home state threw out every single count—including evidence that Ibori paid EFCC officials $15 million in an attempt to influence the outcome of the investigation. The judge ruled that the EFCC had failed to produce a written statement by the man who allegedly conveyed the bribe corroborating their version of events and that the prosecution’s proffered eyewitness testimony would inevitably amount to “worthless hearsay evidence.”

Finally, Nigeria’s other anti-corruption bodies, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), have failed to compliment the efforts of the EFCC. On paper, both institutions have powers that in some ways outstrip those of the EFCC. Unfortunately, they have been ineffectual relative to their size and statutory power and have displayed little appetite for tackling high-level corruption. They need to be empowered with new leadership and prodded to live up to their mandates and complement the EFCC’s own work.

In April 2011 Nigeria held national elections. The polls were a significant improvement over previous elections but were still marred by allegations of ballot stuffing, the inflation of results, and election-related violence. Nonetheless, the elections were seen as an important stamp of legitimacy for incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan who until then had been both a state governor and Nigeria’s president without ever winning an election himself. Now it is time for President Jonathan to use his mandate to show that he is serious about breaking with the dysfunction and abuse that have characterized previous administrations. More than anything else, that means tackling corruption in a manner that is both impartial and effective. President Jonathan’s predecessors in office failed to do so. In May 2011 Jonathan signed into law the Freedom of Information Act that guarantees the public the right to access public records—an important step towards improving transparency in Nigeria.

Because corruption is at the heart of many of Nigeria’s most serious human rights problems, including access to justice, police brutality, violations of economic and social rights, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the Nigerian government to do more to fight corruption and to bolster the capacity and independence of key anti-corruption institutions—especially the EFCC. This report builds on Human Rights Watch’s past work in Nigeria by examining the EFCC’s record in fighting corruption. It lays out an agenda the Jonathan administration should follow to bolster the EFCC, and other government institutions, to make progress in reducing corruption and its attendant human rights consequences—and they are steps that can and should be taken without delay.

The president should publicly state his commitment to break with the bad practices of past administrations in dealing with corruption, including executive branch interference with the EFCC’s operations; sponsor specific legislation to improve the independence of the EFCC; begin the long-term process of repairing and reinforcing Nigeria’s battered federal court system; take specific steps to improve the work of the ICPC and CCB; and investigate allegations of incompetence within the leadership of the EFCC.

Nigeria’s international partners also have a role to play. As revealed by diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, behind closed doors the United States government took a strong stand against apparent attempts to weaken the EFCC under the Yar’Adua administration. The US government also took the important, albeit belated, step to revoke the visa of former attorney general Michael Aondoakaa who was widely seen as having undermined key corruption cases. Comparable international pressure is needed from all of Nigeria’s bilateral partners to press the Jonathan administration to safeguard the EFCC’s integrity and implement the recommendations in this report.

Foreign donors, most notably the European Union, have provided substantial assistance in technical support and capacity building to the EFCC, but Nigeria’s international partners can help in more direct ways as well. Following the example of the United Kingdom in the case of former governor James Ibori, foreign governments should actively pursue corrupt Nigerian politicians who commit financial crimes within their jurisdictions. The EFCC could not successfully prosecute Ibori, but in the end he was not untouchable. In April 2011, the UK government managed to extradite him from Dubai to London where at the time of publication he sat in jail awaiting trial on charges of money laundering.