Nigeria: Controversy at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission

Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) was created in 2003, under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, as an anti-corruption law enforcement body. Corruption, as I have heard many Nigerians say, is one of Nigeria’s core challenges – as is the case in many countries, including mine.

Current President Muhammadu Buhari won his first term in 2015 on a platform that foregrounded anti-corruption, drawing on Buhari’s image (right or wrong) with many Nigerians as an austere and incorruptible personality. Buhari was re-elected in 2019, and his administration has prioritized anti-corruption and asset recovery efforts (notably the money stolen and held abroad by military dictator Sani Abacha, who died in 1998) – yet many Nigerians and even many of Buhari’s own supporters and former supporters feel that he has not lived up to expectations on anti-corruption. The EFCC is part of that story.

The EFCC has had controversies in the past, but several new ones have occurred in the past few weeks. On July 7, the Commission’s Acting Chairman Ibrahim Magu was suspended, and was detained for ten days in connection with a fraud investigation. A number of other senior EFCC officials and investigators have also been suspended and sacked. The presidency’s official statement on Magu’s firing is here, but it (deliberately, I strongly suspect) does not go into detail about the content of the allegations against the suspended chairman. According to some reports, the case against Magu and the others concerns alleged “re-looting of previously stolen funds.” There is a lot of potential irony here, of course.

The EFCC has had only four heads since its creation, with the “pioneer chairman,” Nuhu Ribadu, often seen as the most effective. Michael Dada reviews the history here – one of recurring battles between EFCC chairs, attorneys general, and presidents. An excerpt:

Critics alleged that EFCC’s anti-corruption war under [second Chairperson Farida] Waziri from 2008 to 2011 grew timid and lethargic in comparison with Ribadu’s tenure.

Even though she was able to score one of the commission’s landmark prosecution that led to the former national deputy chairman of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Bode George serving a two-and-a-half year sentence, Waziri, like Ribadu,  also fell out with the Attorney-General, Mohammed Bello Adoke over EFCC’s prosecution of cases.

[…]

[The third Chairman Ibrahim] Lamorde’s leadership of EFCC left a great deal to be desired. Unlike his predecessors, EFCC recorded no major conviction under Lamorde.

[…]

He was thereafter, investigated over allegation of money diversion. On November 9, 2015, President Buhari sacked Ibrahim Lamorde and appointed Ibrahim Magu as the acting chairman of the EFCC.

All of this, as Dada emphasizes, has damaged the EFCC’s image – for critics, it is not merely toothless, but also politicized and internally corrupt.

The Financial Times surveys the key reactions to Magu’s firing, with Magu’s lawyer decrying the charges against his client as politically motivated, and with some civil society groups coming to Magu’s defense. Such groups argue that Magu’s firing undoes crucial progress, and that he has been more aggressive than his predecessors in terms of going after major targets.

Meanwhile, Magu has been replaced by Mohammed Umar, who was Director of Operations. He is apparently not a target of the investigation against Magu and others.

Umar’s appointment has, in the context of the scrutiny given to senior appointees’ geographic origins, raised a few eyebrows, especially among southerners. The southern politician Sunny Onuesoke publicly complained that all of the EFCC chairs have so far been northerners:

In a statement, he said: “Is there any law that says EFCC chairmen can only come from the North? Magu goes and is replaced with another northerner, Mohammed Umar.

“There have now been five chairmen. Each has been a northerner. What‘s happening? Are there no credible southerners?”

With that said, many Nigerians do not view the struggle over the EFCC in geographic terms – some of the most ardent public defenses of Magu have come from voices in the south, for example this column by a Bayelsa State politician.

A lot is at stake in Magu’s firing, then, and what one makes of it. Is the presidency cleaning house and expelling someone who perverted the core mission of his own agency? Or are the presidency and the attorney general’s office settling scores in a fashion that suggests that EFCC will always be hamstrung by politics and interagency rivalries? A lot of Buhari’s second term is still left, but it already appears clear that his legacy on anti-corruption will be fairly mixed.