The recent declaration by Nuhu Ribadu, former boss of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, that he would run for the presidency of this country in the 2011 elections, may not have come as a surprise to many people. Mallam Ribadu, who became a celebrity public servant by the way he ran the EFCC with pomp and bravado, became even larger than life after he was shoved aside from the job, humiliated, and forced into self-imposed exile. Though some saw the manner he was eased out of the job as a necessary comeuppance for his over-indulgence as boss of the financial crimes buster, there was a significant flow of compassion for his travails, which morphed into a certain mythologisation of his time at the EFCC as the golden era of corruption fighting in Nigeria.
While in self-imposed exile, his fellowship at Oxford University and numerous speaking engagements in the West, was interpreted by many as a tacit endorsement of his own side of the story, if not his era at the EFCC, by these countries. In fact Ribadu’s persona, post EFCC, was such that he was not only a much sought-after speaker across the world but also often constantly had to evade the question of whether he planned to run for President.
Several observations could be made regarding his formal declaration of intent to run:
One, Ribadu’s candidacy is likely to generate more interest than that of Professor Pat Utomi, who, though liked by the literati and the intelligentsia, appears to be without the sort of political base that Ribadu seems to have. For instance, while Professor Utomi often approaches elections as if they were a matter of who would present the most brilliant paper in a seminar, Ribadu strives to be populist and cleverly exploits language to create a ‘we’ versus ‘them’ type of struggle, in which he constantly casts himself as a champion of the underdogs. For instance in an unscripted talk he delivered in Ibadan, on September 13, 2010, as a guest at the 80th birthday remembrance lecture in honour of Bola Ige, the former Federal Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Ribadu was quoted by The Nation, (online) of Sept 17, 2010 as saying: “I have always been fighting in my life. When I was in the Police Force, I fought armed robbers, I survived. I fought gangsters, I fought 419 fraudsters, big time corrupt people and I have survived. I am still standing as Nuhu Ribadu; I believe I will also survive this.”
Two, once he was appointed the pioneer chairman of the EFCC, Ribadu carefully cultivated the support of a faction of the civil society allied to the late Gani Fawehinmi, Wole Soyinka, Femi Falana and prominent Awoists. For instance not only did he publicly declare Gani as his hero, he even smuggled himself back to Nigeria to pay his last respect to the great man after his death – despite reportedly being wanted by the Nigerian police. In return, this constituency, which has a tremendous noise value and the support of the Lagos press and the ‘radical’ online community, appears to have adopted him as one of its own.
Three, though Ribadu may have a well-deserved reputation for being loquacious – as EFCC chairman he often found people guilty even before proper investigation had commenced on their cases – he is, from all indications, not politically stupid. Not only was he successful in using the Lagos press and its allied civil society to project himself when he was the boss of the EFCC, he also appears to know which popular sentiments to lap on to. For instance he listed his priorities, if elected President as security; effective power supply; free education; sound medical facilities; and collective leadership. He even bragged that with only 5,000 dedicated police officers, he would wipe out crime in the country! For someone who made his name from fighting corruption, one would wonder why fighting corruption was not listed as one of his priorities. The reason may well be that he knows that he too will have questions to answer on corruption because there is virtually no one who has held a public position in the country, including himself, who does not have one allegation of financial malfeasance or the other hanging around his neck.
Four, one of the major challenges facing Ribadu’s quest for the presidency will be whether he has the emotional intelligence and level-headedness needed for the top political job in the land. While his tenure as EFCC chairman will continue to evoke extreme emotions, there appears to be a consensus that he brought bravado, emotions, love for a fight and some recklessness to the job – qualities that could be disastrous in a President. There are also concerns of whether he has sufficient organisational and financial resources to effectively mount a presidential campaign – especially against the likes of President Jonathan, Atiku Abubakar and Ibrahim Babangida. This was perhaps what Ribadu alluded to when he said it was going to be a David versus Goliath type of fight.
Five, though on face value Ribadu appears to be running only for the consolation prize of ‘also ran’, he may end up playing a decisive role in the outcome of the presidential election. If, as suspected, he ends up running on the platform of Action Congress of Nigeria, and most likely chooses someone from the South West as his running mate, he may effectively be positioned as a candidate of that geopolitical zone in the election. In the North, his fortunes may depend on who is fielded by the PDP as its presidential candidate, and how the party resolves the thorny question of zoning. If for instance the PDP implodes or atrophies as a result of the zoning issue, Ribadu may either share the Northern vote or become its main beneficiary. As improbable as it may seem, Ribadu emerging as the President is not impossible if the zoning issue leads to a sort of Mutually Assured Political Destruction among the key PDP candidates – President Jonathan, Atiku Abubakar and Ibrahim Babangida.
Six, a Ribadu presidency will exacerbate, rather than attenuate the zoning controversy, and the North-South divide. Though zoning was a strictly PDP arrangement, the equation of the PDP to the government by many, means that the zoning debate will follow whoever becomes the President, irrespective of the party platform the election was won. In this sense, the zoning controversy could represent one of the biggest challenges in our journey nationhood.