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(New York) - Recent Nigerian government efforts to remove the country’s leading anti-corruption official would undermine anti-corruption efforts and entrench the impunity enjoyed by corrupt and abusive officials, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch said the looming crisis underscores the need for Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies to be more genuinely independent.

On December 27, 2007, Inspector General of Police Mike Okiro announced that he had ordered Nuhu Ribadu, the head of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), to resign his office to attend a one-year course of study at a Nigerian policy institute. Because sole authority to remove Ribadu rests with Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua, the transfer appears intended to prevent political fallout from an outright firing of Ribadu, who is pursuing politically sensitive investigations into the corrupt activities of powerful ruling party officials.

“The moves against the anti-corruption chief are a thinly veiled attempt to gut the only law enforcement agency that has tried to hold prominent ruling party politicians to account for their many crimes,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The credibility of President Yar’Adua’s rhetoric about promoting of the rule of law is at stake.”

Corruption lies at the heart of Nigeria’s most pressing human rights problems. Since the end of military rule in 1999, many politicians have used stolen government revenues to sponsor political violence in order to rig elections marked by violence and fraud. More than 12,000 Nigerians have died in violent clashes since 1999, and many of those clashes have been incited for political reasons. Corruption has also led to the waste and theft of windfall oil revenues that could have begun to realize Nigerians’ rights to health, education and other basic human rights.

Human Rights Watch has documented the links between the corrupt tactics of several leading politicians and some of Nigeria’s worst human rights abuses. Former Rivers State Governor Peter Odili presided over the theft and mismanagement of several billion dollars in oil revenues during eight years in office. He used those revenues to arm and hire violent gangs, fueling conflict in the restive Niger Delta. Andy Uba, a powerful advisor to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, deployed massive revenues to hire criminal gangs in an attempt to rig the 2007 gubernatorial elections in his home state of Anambra. Nigeria’s compromised police force has consistently turned a blind eye to these and other abuses by well-connected politicians. Only the EFCC has pursued criminal investigations into the activities of Odili, Uba and other tainted ruling-party scions.

Several weeks ago, the EFCC sent shockwaves through the political establishment by arresting powerful former Delta State Governor James Ibori and charging him with 103 counts of corruption. Among myriad charges leveled against Ibori was an attempt to bribe EFCC officials with US$15 million in cash to drop the case against him. Ibori has also consistently been implicated as a central figure in fomenting violence in the strife-torn Niger Delta.

The EFCC’s decision to prosecute Ibori was especially dramatic because the former governor was widely seen as politically untouchable. He is reportedly among the wealthiest of all Nigerian politicians and was a major financier of Yar’Adua’s election campaign. Yar’Adua’s own attorney general, Michael Aondoakaa, sparked a diplomatic protest by UK police officials when he attempted to derail attempts to prosecute Ibori on charges of money laundering in a London court. The attempt to sack Ribadu comes just two weeks after Ibori’s arrest.

Under Nigerian law, only the president can remove the EFCC’s chairman from office prior to the expiration of his term in office, due to end in 2011. Ribadu is a long-serving officer in the police force, but according to leading Nigerian lawyers the police hierarchy has no authority over him in his current position.

“The government seems to be attempting a crude end-run around the law by casting Ribadu’s firing as a routine administrative move by the police,” Takirambudde said. “But in effect Ribadu is being sacked, and sole responsibility for that move lies with President Yar’Adua.”

Since 2003, the EFCC has scored unprecedented successes including the corruption convictions of former police chief Tafa Balogun and former Bayelsa State Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. But the institution’s credibility was badly tarnished by its selective prosecution of government opponents ahead of the rigged 2007 polls that brought the current government to power.

In recent months, the EFCC had begun to rebuild its credibility by initiating prosecutions against several former governors. Not least among these was Ayo Fayose of Ekiti state; Fayose is implicated in acts of murder and corruption, and spent Christmas in prison awaiting trial along with Ibori. One high-ranking EFCC official told Human Rights Watch that Ribadu was being fired in order to “dilute the independence of the EFCC” and “halt the investigation and prosecution of former governors.”

“The EFCC’s important prosecutorial successes were marred by the disgraceful political witch hunts the institution embarked upon ahead of Nigeria’s 2007 elections,” Takirambudde said. “But rather than repair the agency, the Yar’Adua government has now set about dismantling the challenge to impunity that it represents.”

President Yar’Adua came into office pledging to restore integrity to federal anti-corruption efforts by allowing the EFCC to pursue an impartial “zero-tolerance” effort to hold corrupt officials to account. Many Nigerian activists were skeptical of this commitment, arguing that Yar’Adua was too beholden to the corrupt and violent politicians who helped rig him into office to pursue them for their crimes. Yar’Adua’s own election, which was rigged by some of the same officials the EFCC is now pursuing, is being challenged before Nigeria’s election tribunals.

“The government’s efforts against Ribadu show the need for a government agency with the independence and capacity needed to attack the impunity that props up Nigeria’s corrupt and unaccountable political system,” Takirambudde said. “Politics as usual is precisely the thing that has kept Nigeria’s people mired in poverty and violence for 47 years.”

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