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DAKAR, Senegal: Nigeria's anti-corruption chief, whose investigations have ensnared some of the country's wealthiest politicians and officials, will be sent to a year-long training course in a remote police academy, according to senior law enforcement officials in Nigeria, in what many analysts and anti-corruption activists say is an attempt to sideline him.

The country's top police official, Mike Okiro, said Thursday that the decision to send Nuhu Ribadu, a police investigator who rose to become one of the most powerful and feared figures in Nigeria, to study for a year was not an effort to push him aside but part of a routine training exercise for senior police officials. (International Herald Tribune, Dec. 29)

Nuhu Ribadu visited CGD last October, while he was still the executive chairman of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). For an hour and a half he held a room full of hardened development types spellbound. He came across as articulate, professional, extraordinarily committed…and incredibly brave. He talked of taking on Nigeria's corruption kingpins, of how he was determined to show that no one, no matter how powerful, how well-connected, was above the law. But unlike most of us, Nuhu did more than talk. He acted. As we left the room at the end of his presentation, I remember wondering to a colleague how long Nuhu would last. We now have the answer: as of end 2007, Nuhu Ribadu is no longer the executive chairman of Nigeria's top anti-corruption body.

I confess that after listening to him, I worried that Nuhu was at risk of being silenced through violence. But the powers that be in Nigeria have found a less dramatic way to sideline him: they sent him off "on a course to develop himself and to develop the police," as Mike Okiro, Nigeria's top police official told the press. So, Nigeria's most visible and effective corruption fighter is now in a remote training center becoming a better policeman. Somehow I doubt this is bringing much joy to the average Nigerian. The IHT reports that some people in Nigeria are outraged.

Nuhu Ribadu is a controversial public figure. There were and are accusations of political bias, of favoritism, of overzealousness. But, strangely, Nuhu was not removed from office for misconduct or poor performance. He was removed shortly after he authorized the arrest of James Ibori, one of Nigeria's richest men and a close associate of President Umaru Yar'Adua. Pure coincidence, I am sure.

Nigeria is a poster child for the damage corruption can do to a developing country. Recently, Nigeria watchers have seen glimmers of hope that maybe, just maybe, the tide was turning. For those who wish Nigeria well, Nuhu's year-long training program is a discouraging set back.

Is there no way of getting a handle on Nigeria's corruption? Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, now one of Bob Zoellick's top aids at the World Bank and a former Nigerian Finance and Foreign Affairs minister under President Obasanjo, herself a bone fide corruption fighter, offered the following critical insight during her Sabot Memorial Lecture last year:

[D]uring my time in Government, my colleagues and I worked tirelessly to tackle various forms of economic corruption. Yet, we will all be deluding ourselves if we believed this myth that economic corruption is the key to tackling corruption in developing countries. I want to argue that the big elephant in the room which is often ignored is political corruption, and unless tackled this will and does undermine all the focus on fighting economic corruption and improving governance in the economic sphere.

Get political corruption under control, and you check economic corruption. Makes sense. So, let's see how Nigeria's political system deals with the uproar over Nuhu's removal. It's not to late to change plans: an announcement that Nuhu does not need routine police training after all and is instead being re-instated as the head of the anti-corruption commission would be welcome news to Nigerians and to Nigeria's many friends abroad.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.