Technology

Africa's Anti-Corruption Hero


The African Union estimates that corruption costs the continent billions annually. Nuhu Ribadu is on a mission to change that

Nuhu Ribadu has a good sense of humor for a guy whose job puts his life in jeopardy. As the founding chairman of Nigeria's Economic & Financial Crimes Commission, he led efforts to combat corruption. In that role he was threatened, shot at, and, finally, fired. Ribadu jokes that he was let go for doing too good a job.

But even in self-imposed exile, he remains on an anti-corruption mission. "This is the key to economic development," Ribadu told me during the opening cocktail party at the Aspen Institute's global leadership conference in Aspen, Colo. "The money [from Western government aid] that's supposed to go into building the infrastructure and combating AIDS instead goes out of the country. If you attack corruption, it's the best way to attack poverty."

Ribadu was a veteran police officer in 2003 when he was appointed to the commission, and according to The New York Times assembled a well-trained staff. But he was sidelined after his agency charged a former governor with bribery; ultimately he was dismissed from the police force.

I was introduced to Ribadu by Dele Olojede, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 2005 for his examination of post-genocide Rwanda. Olojede has returned to Africa after a stint at Long Island's Newsday newspaper, and he's trying to strengthen the free press in Africa. He runs Timbuktu Media, which is investing in existing media properties and developing new ones. The conversation turned to corruption. "You want to meet the guy who's going after corruption," Olojede said. "There's your hero right there," he added, pointing to Ribadu.

Rwanda's Kagame "One of the Best Leaders"

Corruption has cost Nigeria more than $380 billion since the nation gained independence in 1960, Ribadu estimates. Africa-wide, it's a huge problem. The African Union estimates that corruption costs the continent $140 billion annually, or about 25% of total gross domestic product in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ribadu praised anti-corruption efforts by leaders and reformers in Mozambique, Botswana, and Tanzania. He called out Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, who recently fired some top government officials for accepting bribes. "He's one of the best leaders in Africa," Ribadu says.

Western governments can assist in anti-corruption efforts, Ribadu adds. "It would be effective if they simply stated that government corruption is unacceptable," he says.

In late 2007, Ribadu ran afoul of Nigeria's powerful when his commission arrested Jmes Ibori, a former governor from an oil-rich state who was accused of stealing more than $85 million, according to The New York Times. Ibori was a member of the group that helped elect the country's then-new President, Umaru Yar'Adua. International observers said the election was deeply flawed.

Now, Ribadu is a visiting fellow at Oxford University in England and will soon go to work for a policy think tank in Washington. Here's hoping that before long, he'll be back in Africa, leading the fight against what he calls the "evil machine of corruption."

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York and author of the Globespotting blog.

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