TEDGlobal 2009 Fellow Mallam Nuhu Ribadu has announced his candidacy for president of Nigeria. In his first North American interview since the announcement, the anti-corruption activist spoke with TED’s Emeka Okafor, keeper of the seminal Africa blog Timbuktu Chronicles.
There is a tremendous amount of interest in your run for presidency. What would you attribute this to?
There is a powerful yearning for accountable and transparent leadership in Nigeria today. I am talking of a leadership that is able to address the ordinary peoples’ pressing problems and also reassure them that they really matter, that this country belongs to them.
It is now 11 years since our country returned to democratic rule, but the expected fruits are not visible; the economy is not generating jobs to match the rapidly growing population. Public education at all levels has collapsed. Cholera and other easily preventable diseases are ravaging the countryside, and infrastructure critical to economic development and social regeneration have been neglected over the years.
These are some of the things Nigerians are complaining about, and they are therefore looking for new political leadership, vigorous and purpose-driven leadership, to change the Nigerian story from pain and penury to prosperity and hope.
But we must be careful not to personalize the story and say the huge interest in my bid for the presidency is Nuhu Ribadu’s doing alone. I am running on the platform of a political party that stands for excellence in public service, a party that puts the needs of ordinary Nigerians first. Yet to talk of party is only, if I may use the expression, a tip of the iceberg. We are working within a broad canvass, a canvass which is indeed a coalition of progressive elements in the country. I also have an able and dedicated team working with me on my campaign. Some of these people are house-hold names in my country; they stand out because of their commitment to justice and the welfare of the ordinary people over the years. Nigerians know this, and they are rallying to our platform because they feel that this is a group whose promises they can rely on; a team that will go to any length to ensure their welfare. Above all, Nigerians are sick and tired of the problem of corruption, a problem that has eaten up their resources to the extent of eating up their future. They know we have proven record to reverse this problem. That is why we are here today, in the hearts and minds of our people.
So I think these are some of the reasons why Nigerians are now standing up to be part of history, to be part of the new movement to make this country work for all again, big and small, poor and rich.
From a career in law enforcement to politics. What has this change been like?
People tend to forget that prior to my law enforcement career I was a qualified lawyer who then became a prosecutor. Besides, my take on matters like this is more philosophical. Look at it this way, change is a constant in life, more so here in Africa that is now going through great political, economic and social flux. African countries are shaking off the authoritarianism of the past four decades that kept ordinary people down, reducing them to silent spectators in the great drama of economic development and social reconstruction. Taking it together, my law enforcement work over the past two decades, and also as member of the Nigerian economic management team that turned the nation’s economy round in the mid nineties into the early years of the new millennium, as well as my stint at our nation’s highest policy college, the Nigerian Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPSS, the interesting thing I discovered as I began to make the transition to politics this past one year or so is that at the heart of law enforcement, economic management, policy development, and principled politics are the same motive: to make the life of the ordinary people more secure; to make institutions to work better so that they can serve the public interest the more effectively. Viewed this way, the transition from law enforcement to politics is not an abrupt disruption but rather a continuum on the road of public service, service to the Nigerian people.
How important an election is this? And why should Nigerians vote for you? Why should Americans pay attention?
I say the 2011 elections is important, very important because it will determine whether Nigeria will settle down into one-party rule, which is only one step to full-blown dictatorship and the economic inefficiency and social inertia that come with it, or break free and return to the path of multi-party democracy which all our people desired when they trooped out in the millions and ended military rule in 1999. The People’s Democratic Party has been in government for 11 years, and the people of Nigeria have gained nothing for it. Nigerians are angry and they feel cheated. They are disappointed with the PDP; they are disappointed with the politicians. This is why I am running for presidency: to restore the faith of ordinary Nigerians in the political process; in a government that truly cares for their welfare, that exerts itself to meet their daily needs. I have thought deeply about the problems of Nigerians; I have thought carefully about how to overcome the nation’s present challenges, and my team and I have worked out properly thought-through policies to speak to these daunting problems. We will urgently tackle the growing feeling of insecurity all over the country. We will create new paying jobs. The power sector will be overhauled to generate regular and affordable electricity. The health and education sectors will be given a new lease of life. But above all, yes, above all, we will wage an unrelenting war against poverty in this country. The welfare of the ordinary people of Nigeria will be at the heart of all our efforts as a government. This, put simply, is why I am running for president – to bring real and workable solutions to real problems. And that is why I ask Nigerians to come out massively and vote for me, and having voted, to stand firm and defend their votes. Americans and the people of other Western countries should pay close attention to political events in Nigeria presently because it is Africa’s most populous nation and one of the world’s leading oil producers. Nigeria also plays a very important role in stabilizing the strategic Gulf of Guinea oil states and also contributes generously to peace-keeping operations all over the world. A stable, prosperous and democratic Nigeria will more effectively partner the United States as the world’s peoples pull together to address the emerging challenges of the 21st century: climate change, failing states, terrorism, poverty and transnational diseases.
As president if you were to win how would you address the issue of corruption and weak institutions?
Corruption and weak institutions are linked in the sense that the presence of the latter provides fertile ground for the unscrupulous to break the law and divert public funds to private ends with impunity. It is a known fact that where there are strong institutions that function in a transparent and accountable manner the incident of corruption is drastically reduced. To this extent I will run a transparent government; a government that will be accountable to the two other arms – the legislature and the judiciary – and ultimately also accountable to Nigerian citizens who put us in power. Immediately on taking office, I will work strategically with the National Assembly to pass and ultimately sign into law the Freedom of Information Bill that, for one reason or the other has been vegetating on the executive foyer for several years now. Our journalists will be encouraged and empowered to serve as whistle-blowers, beaming a searchlight on the processes of government, particularly budgeting and execution of government contracts. I will also open the strategic sectors like oil and other extractive revenue earners to greater transparent and accountable oversight. Related to this is the need to publish what we earn and what all tiers of government get in allocation, in a way to help Nigerians appreciate what is earned and how it is spent. Our work at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was abruptly terminated, but on assuming office I will see that this very important organ is given a new lease of life, to continue its important work. The judiciary will be strengthened to speedily treat cases of corruption with the dispatch they deserve. The best way to strengthen public institutions at all levels is to give them the leeway to go ahead and do their work unimpeded, and also provide them with the resources they require to perform at the optimum. All the enabling laws they require to perform will be put in place. But most importantly, I will lead from the front. I will lead by example, insisting that the moral tone of government be such as will make ordinary Nigerians to see that change has come and emulate us.
What are the chances of building an Obama-type grassroots campaign within Nigeria what can people do to help? Have you looked at the community building efforts of the Obama campaign as a guide of sorts for your campaign?
President Obama and the people behind his campaign did a wonderful job. But it is important that we remember that Nigeria is not America and that the circumstances that threw up Obama and made his success at the polls possible are different. Having said that, there are certainly lessons to be learnt here, particularly the way in which the Obama team fired up the young and other social groups generally considered to be at the margins of American society to stand up and be counted. Here in Nigeria, the average voter has become cynical after seeing election riggers hijack polling boxes and inflating vote figures out of all proportion these past 11 years. We are now working on a strategy of replacing despair with hope and confidence in the electoral process. We are also working with young people in the 36 states of the federation to come and join us and seize their moment because the coming election is really a plebiscite on their future. And they are responding in large numbers. We have Team Ribadu, our young Nigerians platform driving this important process. They are working in small networks in towns and cities and villages, galvanizing the grassroots and readying ordinary folk to troop out en masse to vote and having voted, to stand firm and peacefully defend their vote. This is what we are doing, and in this we are drawing from indigenous village civic organizations in this country as our model, the way in which they self-mobilise to execute projects. We are also drawing inspiration from other lands, including the Obama story.
What message would you have for the TED community in particular and the Americans in general regarding your candidacy?
Integrity, commitment to excellence, and openness to dialogue about what best will serve the public interest are the core values I am bringing to this election process and beyond; values that I know the TED community and Americans in general also hold dear. I am running for President because I am convinced that a new Nigeria is possible, that I and those who are with me can change our story from failure and despair to achievement and unbounded possibilities. America has always renewed and revitalized herself just when all appeared lost. Nigeria can do so too, and I urge Americans to rally behind true democrats in Nigeria whose only request is that the coming elections be free, fair and credible. Ultimately, it will be up to Nigerians to vote and protect their votes, but the world, and this includes the TED community and all Americans, can help by sending out the word that there is really no alternative to free elections in Nigeria. The only other option is anarchy and violence, and I am sure no one really wants that.
How viable is your campaign? Do you realistically feel that you can win?
I am running to win, no doubt about that. I am running on a record of dedicated service to my country. I am running on a record of achievement in the public service; a record of 25 years of public service. My team and I have thought about Nigeria’s problems, and our policy proposals are clear and sensible and speak directly to the pressing problems of the overwhelming majority of our country men and women. My campaign machinery is firm and extends to all parts of the country, taking precisely this message to Nigerians. I will win with a clear majority as long as the polling is free and fair and there is no intimidation of voters at the polling stations. On a jocular level, I want to say also I never failed at anything I ever set out to accomplish.
How can we move Nigeria/Africa’s culture from one of extraction to one of production?
There is nothing intrinsic in Nigerian and African culture that yokes them eternally to a culture of extraction. When academics talk about the ‘resource curse’ and point to African countries as the quintessential example of this pathology, they forget that Africa’s present mono-cultural economy is linked to the continent’s peculiar political history. Colonial rule imposed an authoritarian model of politics and economic development on the continent. Our colonial overlords were only interested in forcing local people to plant cash crops which were then shipped to Europe to feed her rapidly-expanding industries. Little or no investment was made in developing manufacturing capacity on the continent. The modest efforts that were made by our post-independence leaders were quickly reversed with the advent of military coups and dictatorship beginning in the mid-1960s. With the return of multi-party democracy in Nigeria and other African countries in the past decade or so, effort is now being made to invest in industry and manufacture, to commercialise underperforming state-owned enterprises; to put in place the vital social and physical infrastructure that will drive economic diversification and shared prosperity. Stock markets are opening up all over the continent; incentives are being put in place to strengthen the private sector and also attract foreign direct investment. The public sector is also being retooled to serve as an effective and responsible partner, providing the political stability, security, legal framework and regulatory mechanism that are so vital for private and public enterprise to thrive and prosper. Nigeria’s telecommunication sector is one of the most vibrant in the world today. I will further deepen and accelerate these processes with policies my team and I will unfurl immediately on taking office. There is now talk of the ‘African Lion;’ of Africa emerging as the next economic miracle after the Asian tigers. I take this talk seriously and we will make this happen, beginning with Nigeria.
Some might say that you are unsuited for the rough and tumble of Nigerian politics that you run the risk of being compromised, how would you address those concerns?
Politics is public service and ought to and should attract selfless and honest people. If this has not always been so, then we are challenged to make it so. That is why I am running for President, to tell ordinary Nigerians and indeed the whole world that people of integrity can step up to the plate and take back their country and make it work again. You will be thrilled to know that this same question was posed to me when I joined the police some quarter of a century ago. People said, “look the police is too corrupt it is going to remake you in a way you will hate…it will corrupt you.” Today the same institution is where I and a number of my colleagues who formed the core of the EFCC came from. I think we must work with the mindset that people can positively affect even the most corrupt institution. Our mission is to save our country from the rot that is taking it down. We dare not fail in this mission, the alternative is less inviting to even contemplate.
John Githongo, a fellow anti-corruption crusader, said “the struggle for a fair, just and equitable humanity risks losing direction if it relies primarily on individual initiative at the expense of collective action.” What are your thoughts on this?
My good friend, John Githongo, surely makes a nice point here. However, individual example is important, very important; in fact individuals matter a lot, for good or for ill…imagine South African history without Mandela, the civil rights movement without Martin Luther King Jr, or a world without Ghandi. Yet, for social reform to be sustained, and indeed made irreversible, the people themselves must be the primary drivers of change. Civic organizations and political parties are good vehicles to bring this about, and that is why I recently joined a political party here in Nigeria, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN); a new party that I think has a record of integrity and public service and has also been mobilizing the energies of the ordinary people to bring about the changes at the local and national levels that we all desire.
Would you invite a former colleague like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to join you in government if you were to win?
My government will be inclusive; a government of ‘all the talents.’ I was privileged to work with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and several other accomplished Nigerians at the highest levels of government in my country from 2003-2007. We achieved results in so short a space of time because ability and hard work and patriotism were the vital ingredients that brought this team together. You could say this was Nigeria’s version of ‘Camelot’ of the Kennedy presidency. The light has not altogether been extinguished. My government will rekindle the flame; attract the finest and the best in Nigeria, including Nigerians resident abroad and other friends of the country wherever they might reside in the world, to come and join us in the great task of national reconstruction.