Nuhu Ribadu, presidential candidate of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) likes to claim that he personifies the alternative to President Goodluck Jonathan; that he represents everything that the PDP’s Jonathan is not. But even the most cursory scrutiny of his political character and recent biography suggests otherwise.
By Moses E. Ochonu
In fact, you cannot examine Ribadu’s recent actions and utterances without concluding that he is, in many respects, a mirror image of the man he likes to cast himself against.
It’s the inconsistencies, the shocking intellectual shallowness, the lack of honor, the moral pretentions and reversals, the pursuit of power without the moderating influence of moral principles, the ethical prevarications, the failure or inability to move from platitudes and banal rhetoric to the challenging terrain of problem solving specifics. It’s all there in Ribadu. Ribadu is Jonathan writ small—or large if you prefer. Actually, Ribadu may be worse than Jonathan. In Jonathan, you have an open book; what you see is what you get. His royal badness is on full, unpretentious display. In Ribadu, you have a man who has mastered the art of pretending to be a progressive populist while he is at core an establishment man, willing to engage in the most despicable moral compromises in order to secure power.
Some of us have been warning about Ribadu since his days as Obasanjo’s anti-corruption czar. We were going against the grain of an emerging Ribadu myth that evolved paradoxically as his duplicitous and politicized activities as EFCC chairman multiplied. Today, Ribadu has parlayed those myths of a can-do crime fighter into his presidential run. But was Ribadu an effective anti-corruption figure? The objective answer, as I outlined in previous articles and online commentaries, is negative.
Myths of Ribadu’s EFCC
Where to begin? Nuhu Ribadu’s work against the menace of private sector financial crimes like Advanced Fee Fraud (419) was a resounding success. But when he transitioned to the political arena to fight government corruption, he was a bust, to say the least. He secured no conviction of note. His most celebrated accomplishment as EFCC chairman is the six-month jail term secured against former IG Tafa Balogun. But like all other accomplishments of the Ribadu anti-corruption regime, it was an overhyped product of a pathetic routine of plea bargains that ended in wrist-slapping punishments. They left the offenders’ loot largely untouched. Ribadu failed miserably to replicate his successes against 419 criminals in Abuja’s seamy political underworld.
He had no one but himself to blame. Time and again, he signaled a willingness to interject himself, using the enormous intimidating apparatus of his organization, into political frays where his principal’s interests were at stake. As a result, the EFCC’s credibility and impartiality, the two ingredients for success in a war on corruption, eroded, blunting the support of regular citizens, civil society, and politicians. Once this crucial plank of public support became divided into pro- and anti-Ribadu camps, corrupt and opportunistic politicians had a leeway to accuse Ribadu, increasingly with very good evidence, of executing a political witch hunt on behalf and at the behest of Obasanjo. Subsequently, the anti-corruption effort careened off into murky territories, with no clear-cut set of guiding principles.
Because of a divided public opinion on a glaringly politicized anti-corruption effort, judges became willing to grant ridiculous protections to indicted politicians and to award equally absurd injunctions against the EFCC, further rendering the EFCC ineffective as an investigative and prosecuting outfit. Ribadu played right into the hands of his corrupt targets, as he refused to pay attention to the twin problems of perception and process and instead privileged atmospherics and bluster above all else.
Ribadu’s Blame Game
Ribadu blamed his failures on a compromised and bribable judiciary. If that may be true to a degree, it begs the question of why judges felt emboldened to award ludicrous protective orders to politicians in the crosshairs of the EFCC without fearing a backlash from the public. Errant judges reckoned that a public divided on Ribadu’s methods and manner of selecting his cases and by the pervasive perception of political targeting would not condemn the judiciary for enforcing, however dubiously, the rule of law and for insisting on procedural order. Abuse of the judicial process thrived under this Ribadu-created public moral equivocation.
Ribadu’s willingness to use anti-corruption as a weapon of political blackmail and winnowing (as demonstrated by the controversial EFCC disqualification list) opened the way for disappointing judicial pronouncements that gave succor to political figures known to have abused their offices and the public trust. Nuhu Ribadu’s pro-Obasanjo fanaticism actually doomed the war on corruption, contrary to the popular narrative that it furthered it.
That brings us to the most controversial element in the Ribadu anti-corruption debate: selectivity. Critics and defenders of Ribadu agree on the brazen selectiveness of the Ribadu anti-corruption regime. The facts are well known, the evidence of this selectiveness too strong to ignore. Defenders of the candidate are always quick to point to the necessity of selectiveness in any investigative and prosecutorial enterprise. They are right. Not every criminal violation can be investigated or should be prosecuted. Crime fighters have to make tough choices about which crimes get to be investigated or prosecuted and in what order. Prioritization and selectivity are integral to the very science of crime fighting. Crime fighting is thus by its nature selective.
The problem with the argument of Ribadu’s defenders, however, is that in other contexts crime fighters make these choices on the basis of pragmatic indicators—on the basis of evidence, prosecutorial ease, or investigative progress. They make decisions on account of whether a conviction can be obtained and/or on whether the evidentiary corpus in a case warrants prosecution. Ribadu’s selectiveness was dictated by the vagaries of politics, by where a particular investigative or prosecutorial target stood in relation to Obasanjo’s political and economic interests. This is the problem with Ribadu’s EFCC stewardship in regard to his campaign against political graft. The problem was not selectiveness per se, but the impetus for it. The traditional crime fighter’s discretionary selectiveness was politicized under Ribadu. He was defensive and unconvincing in trying to explain this political selectiveness. Frustrated, he substituted bluster for substance.
Discerning Ribadu’s Present from his Past
Ribadu’s EFCC regime haunts his presidential ambition today. Many people have had a hard time restoring their trust to a man that, while reputedly incorruptible, clearly overlooked corruption in many scandalous instances and befriended and defended patently corrupt individuals like Obasanjo, El-Rufai, and Andy Ubah.
But this past pales in comparison to Ribadu’s recent antics. With all his imperfections, Ribadu at least possessed a rare asset in Nigeria’s public service: personal integrity—or so it seemed. Lately, though, he has traded it off in a desperate quest for presidential power. Personal integrity does not inhere only in personal incorruptibility but also in a determination to deny comfort to the corrupt, to withhold legitimacy from him, to shun him, and to recoil at being courted by him. Ribadu has violated all these rules of personal integrity.
By now we know the details of his spectacular exoneration of the First Lady, Mrs. Patience Jonathan. As columnist Sonala Olumhense has painstakingly documented, to the chagrin of Mrs. Jonathan, the cases against the First Lady were not hearsays; they were actual court cases replete with sworn affidavits by EFCC officials. At least one case was begun and a judge issued a freeze order on the loot in question. Ribadu himself made pronouncements on one of the cases, clearly indicting the then Bayelsa State First Lady. These indictments are documented in court records and in publicly available contemporaneous newspaper reports. Today, Ribadu is the most vehement defender of Mrs. Jonathan’s innocence! So emphatically spurious is this inexplicably novel narrative of Mrs. Jonathan’s innocence that when the First Lady took out paid newspaper advertorials recently to scold and threaten Olumhense, she invoked Ribadu’s exonerating declaration.
On this matter, there are only two rational conclusions and both of them reflect negatively on Ribadu. Either he is looking us in the face and lying to us in order to mollify or give comfort to the Jonathan clan or he was so incompetent as EFCC chairman that he was unaware of the cases filed by his own Commission in court against Mrs. Jonathan and her alleged money launderer, Mrs. Ebere Nwosu. Either way, the portrait that emerges is that of a candidate who is either willing to barter his soul and to excuse corruption or one that was out of touch with the activities of an organization that he headed. Neither explanation helps his argument that he is qualified to be president. One would have to suspend one’s rational faculties to subscribe to a third conclusion.
Ribadu’s Compromise, Tinubu’s Triumph
Ribadu’s recent moral climb downs reinforce the skepticism of those who never bought into the hype of his EFCC activism. They also cast him as a man lacking in honor and integrity. No case illustrates this more than Ribadu’s association with former Governor Bola Tinubu. It is painful, even tortuous, to listen to Ribadu try to explain his curious fraternization with Mr. Tinubu. The reason for the difficulty is clear: Ribadu spared no bluster in the past in speaking about Tinubu’s alleged corruption. Here are a few samples. Testifying before the Nigerian Senate in 2007, Ribadu did not only include Tinubu in his list of corrupt governors, he also famously declared that Tinubu’s corruption was so deep that it had an international dimension to it. Speaking to correspondents at the presidential wing of the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos on Sunday, February 17 2007, Ribadu was reported to have said the following about then Governors Tinubu, Ibrahim Shekarau, and Orji Kalu in the wake of their indictment by an administrative panel of inquiry:
“Tinubu and the rest should consider themselves very lucky… they ought to have been where Dariye, Fayose, and Alemieyeseigha are today. They cannot escape. It is a matter of time. They have the protection of the law. They enjoy immunity. We are after them because they still want to rule us again. The constitution is against indicted people. After their tenure, they will be prosecuted. They remain indicted and are not fit to hold public positions.”
These are the words of Nuhu Ribadu, when he wanted us to believe that Tinubu was corrupt and that he had a case ready to be filed as soon Tinubu vacated his constitutional immunity. Today, Tinubu is Ribadu’s political godfather and financier. For his part, Ribadu invented and is sticking to the barefaced lie that he never indicted Tinubu or list the former governor in his black book of corrupt governors. Ribadu is a man without honor and he continuously demonstrates that there is no lie too big for him to tell in his increasingly desperate quest for power. The highlight of this dishonorable conduct is the recent NN24 debate, in which the moderator reminded Ribadu of his well-publicized indictment against Tinubu. Here, too, Ribadu looked into the camera and lied to a disbelieving nation that is acquainted with his recent history of lavish indictments. Traumatized by such blatant lying, many Nigerian viewers thought they were having an out-of-body experience.
For Tinubu, these spectacular reversals by Ribadu are political gifts of unquantifiable value. Tinubu is today basking in the afterglow of Ribadu’s exonerations. When the dust settles, Ribadu will have been effectively used to fumigate Tinubu’s image.
Dishonor and Dishonesty
For Ribadu, the damage started early in the presidential run. He proclaimed his desperation when he came under the bosom of Tinubu. But he lost his soul when he wagered his vaunted personal integrity by declaring infamously that he would accept financial sponsorships from corrupt and indicted politicians as long as the money did not end up in his pocket. This revelation offered a glimpse into the depth of Ribadu’s willingness to compromise in the game of power. From here, the slide was predictable. Olumhense diagnosed this blunder properly by differentiating it from the pragmatic strategic compromises and alliances that are necessary for securing political power. Olumhense wrote: “in politics, compromise is sometimes necessary in order to ensure that the objective is not mistaken for the method. But what you compromise are strategies, not principles.” In expressing his willingness to let himself be financially endowed by the man that he repeatedly indicted and in brazenly denying a widely documented indictment of the former Lagos governor, Ribadu lost all honor and escrowed his integrity to Tinubu.
The current narrative of dishonor has a precedent in another incident. In exonerating Bode George, one of Obasanjo’s most trusted political allies, from the corruption that wracked the Nigerian Ports Authority, which was under the former’s chairmanship, Nuhu Ribadu told The News magazine that George was in the clear of the NPA malfeasance. His logic was as hollow as it was unconvincing. He claimed thus: “Olabode George was never an executive officer of NPA. He was a part time chairman. It is the executive Managing Director who runs the place; it was the MD’s name that appeared in all the contract papers of NPA. Olabode George was a part-time chairman whose name was never on any contract paper.”
Ribadu was either so incompetent as an investigator not to have noticed the nexus that tied George to the sleazy deals perpetrated under him or was lying, once again, to save his principal’s political ally. We now know that Ribadu was lying deliberately or out of incompetent ignorance because George was prosecuted by the post-Ribadu EFCC, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison on the same charges on which Ribadu proclaimed him innocent. Let’s not even get into the overkill of Ribadu’s defense of Obasanjo’s and Andy Ubah’s innocence despite appearances and documentary evidence to the contrary.
Because this fit a pattern already patented by Ribadu, George’s conviction hardly ignited a debate on Ribadu’s earlier claims about his innocence. For me and many, what was more significant as a marker of Ribadu’s dishonesty is that, once George was convicted by justice Olubunmi Oyewale, Ribadu shamelessly tried to claim credit for the conviction, issuing a self-adulating statement that was silent on his public exoneration of George on the same charges while claiming that the conviction had been secured “on account of the damning indictment report I prepared against him.” How dishonorable! How morally bankrupt! This is how deceitfully despicable and duplicitously dishonorable Ribadu can become in trying to pad his crime fighting legend while falsifying recent history.
I will let Ribadu’s recent embrace of IBB speak for itself, pointing out only that it fits neatly into the pattern delineated above.
Where is the Substance?
Stripped of all honor and integrity, what is left of Ribadu that would appeal to a beleaguered electorate? Why should we, progressives and non-progressives, still take Ribadu’s presidential run seriously? Does he possess the intellectual resources to compensate for his moral and ethical deficits? It appears that Ribadu’s moral impunity is matched only by his intellectual poverty. Ribadu is perhaps the most vacuous of all the presidential candidates. He lacks the ability to methodically understand issues and proffer concrete, considered solutions. He is a serial waffler who cannot be made to outline a discernibly consistent position on anything. Ribadu’s widely panned performance at the recent NN24 presidential debate confirmed what some of us have been saying about him for some time. He is scatter-brained, hard to pin down on specifics, and prone to pedestrian platitudes about good governance, the possibility for a new Nigeria, coming together to rebuild the nation, and the inherent goodness of Nigerians.
The problem Ribadu is having in connecting with Nigerians is that he is running for the president solely on a platform of inspirational motivation, and he is a terrible motivational speaker. Nigerians are not looking to hire a motivational speaker—or, in the case of Ribadu, screamer. If we were, Ribadu’s rapid fire, stream-of-consciousness thought process would disqualify him. We are auditioning candidates for the position of president. Like America’s Sarah Palin, Ribadu never took the time to reflect on the depth and breadth of the Nigerian conundrum, content on being a one-issue, anti-corruption candidate.
Once the anti-corruption narrative core of his campaign faltered in the wake of his ethical and moral summersaults and once his political associations dulled his populist luster there was nothing for him to come back to. It was too late to cultivate a new image. There is nothing substantive left in the armory. All that is left is empty, annoyingly repetitive rhetoric about how bad things are and how it is possible to imagine a better future with a president Ribadu. The roadmap to this new Nigeria is never spelt out because Ribadu has never considered the variegated facets of the Nigerian predicament beyond the narrow province of anti-corruption.
Character and Temperament Matter
The NN24 debate illustrated something else about Ribadu. He lacks the temperament to be president. He lacks what one may call a governing temperament—a listening, deliberate, consultative, thoughtful, and self-critical approach to problems. Ribadu’s conduct at the debate has been variously described as juvenile, school boyish, infantile, and undisciplined. He screamed and barked out answers to questions, even those that required sober, thoughtful answers. He huffed and puffed at innocuous inquiries. Every question was a chance to demonstrate his hackneyed anti-corruption bravado, not a chance to demonstrate his versatility and all-round competence. He answered as he pleased, disregarding the parameters of the question posed. He looked like a man unsure, a man debating with himself. He bobbed and weaved, avoiding frontal engagements with difficult questions about policy and problems. He spoke in predictable generalities as though Nigeria were a small, simple, uncomplicated place requiring a single stock solution. He constantly went over the allocated time partly because he insisted on offering a moralizing, platitudinous, and motivational preface for every response. This was expressive indiscipline at its most egregious. And he talked over the moderator many times, refusing to yield the floor even after being repeatedly told that his time was up.
Ordinarily, these footnoted style factors would be of little consequence in a presidential election. But character and temperament matter and can facilitate or hinder presidential effectiveness. And style and substance seep into each other. For those of us who had watched Ribadu for some time, his antics at the debate reinforced an aspect of his character that is incompatible with good, consultative leadership. Ribadu is a terrible listener and an inpatient, intolerant interlocutor. He has little tolerance for critique and scrutiny. He dreads dissent and is incapable of self-critique and introspection.
Narcissism and Messianism
When my colleagues on the Nigerianvillagesquare.com editorial board interviewed Ribadu last year, the audio and the transcripts portrayed him in a terrible, unappealing light. The forum discussion that followed unanimously echoed this assessment.
Ribadu interjected and interrupted the questions so many times that it was hard to tell interviewer from interviewee. He played the victim, pleaded for better treatment, whined about being misunderstood and treated unfairly, and repeatedly boasted about his accomplishments and sacrifices as a public servant as if they entitled him to automatic and unqualified praise or inoculated him from scrutiny. He evaded and obscured and did not clarify any issues. To hear him in that interview was to believe that the whole world was against Ribadu or that we were mischievously ignoring his messianic interventions in Nigeria’s affairs.
This was a man who took himself too seriously, was saddled with an implacably inflated ego, and lived and operated in his own bubble. It was hard for the interviewers to get Ribadu to acknowledge mistakes and shortcomings in his actions, pronouncements, and associations during and after his EFCC chairmanship, let alone to address them. He lashed out often in a vain effort to deflect uncomfortable questions about his morally inconsistent positions, actions, pronouncements, and associations.
Ribadu came off as someone who did not even know that his political brand, manufactured and mythologized as it was, was under assault from self-created narratives and perceptions. He seemed to want to have things both ways and to be judged on multiple, conflicting standards. As in the NN24 interview, he seemed eager to sustain his reputation as a bulwark against corruption while at the same time sticking to his current script of exonerating those who saved him from the political wilderness into which the vindictive Yar’Adua had thrust him. Ribadu’s sense of entitlement, his movement mentality, and his messianic fantasies have produced a candidate that is now a casualty of his own delusions of self-relevance.
The Limits of Sloganeering
Feel-good banalities and repetitive, if mildly motivational, sloganeering have their limits in an election of this significance unless you are Obama-good in oratory. But even Obama, oratorical master that he is, had to demonstrate his policy machismo and develop a to-do list corresponding to America’s menu of problems. It was his ability to match actionable specifics to inspirational public speaking that carried the day for him. Ribadu’s public speaking and policy articulation is labored, scattered, incoherent, and undisciplined, especially for a Masters degree holder in law. With substance and inspirational distinction lacking in his presidential run, why should Nigerians trust Ribadu with their votes? Because he is Nuhu Ribadu?
Ribadu feels entitled to our support, our votes. He doesn’t understand why, in spite of the forgivingly enormous political capital he carried over from his EFCC days, Nigerians have the audacity to ask for more, to demand specifics of him, and to argue that a mythical anti-corruption street cred alone is not enough to guarantee him the presidency. That’s the reason he is so intolerant to any effort to reexamine the claims at the heart of his public image. This is the height of Ribadu’s narcissism.
A Forfeit Campaign?
Is Ribadu aware that he has now been conclusively demystified and discredited, and that his debate shenanigans are now the stuff of public humor? A cynical reading of his choice of running mate would conclude that Ribadu is indeed aware of his declining political stock. Fola Adeola is a man with no political pedigree and who brings no asset except perhaps a fiscal one to the ticket. Ideologically, Adeola is as far from a progressive populist as one can get. Did Ribadu pick him merely to make a political statement in a forfeit election in which he knows he stands no chance of winning? How else does one explain the choice of Adeola, who comes from a region in which Ribadu’s party, the ACN, is already strong and where Ribadu is projected to score the bulk of his votes? And with all the water that has passed under the proverbial Nigerian bridge since the last Muslim-Muslim ticket, why doom your chances with Christians who want to be represented on the ticket by selecting a Muslim running mate? Surely this is not the strategic decision of a serious candidate.
Does anyone still take Ribadu seriously as a figure or symbol of change and departure from the status quo?
The author can be reached at: email@example.com