The biggest anti-corruption story out of Africa right now is Goodluck Jonathan’s ascension as acting president of Nigeria. His appointment two weeks ago (after serving as vice president since 2007) by the National Assembly came three months after the elected president, Umaru Yar’Adua, left Nigeria for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, apparently for a chronic kidney condition. He was incommunicado, leaving Africa’s most populous country in limbo.
Yar’Adua returned to Nigeria this week. But Jonathan is still running the country under the National Assembly’s mandate “until the president returns to full health.”
The future is unclear and fragile. United States Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Jonnie Carson, said: “We hope that President Yar’Adua’s return to Nigeria is not an effort by his senior advisors to upset Nigeria’s stability and create renewed uncertainty in the democratic process.”
Jonathan, 52, is far from a typical Nigerian politician. He’s an academic with a doctorate in zoology and is seen as relatively untainted by graft. Most important, he supports those who opposed the corruption of the former regime.
In his inaugural speech, he promised a more robust fight against graft. And right away he enlisted help from the country’s most credible anti-corruption crusader, Nuhu Ribadu.
Ribadu once headed Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Under his leadership it secured convictions in over 275 cases. But he fled to London three years ago after a couple of near-miss assassination attempts.
In a powerful signal of change, Ribadu appeared this week in Washington to speak on behalf of Jonathan’s government. According to a report in Nigeria’s Punch, he asked a Senate sub-committee on African affairs for American help in restoring law and order to Nigeria, stepping up the fight against corruption through tougher enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and ensuring democratic elections in 2011.
Ribadu had visited Washington last year, not as an official voice but as a exile. In testimony in May before the House Financial Services Committee, he talked about the human cost of Nigeria’s sleaze:
This outflow is not just abstract numbers: it translates to the concrete reality of kids who cannot be put in schools, who will never learn to read, because there are no classrooms; mothers who die in childbirth because the money for maternity care never made it to the hospitals; tens of thousands who die because there are no drugs or vaccines in hospitals; no roads to move produce from farms to markets or enable a thriving economy; no jobs for young school graduates or even ordinary workers; and no security for anyone because the money has been stolen and shipped out.
Now some in Nigeria, especially younger people, are talking openly about Ribadu for president.