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Nuhu RibaduCan a few brave souls make a difference in the fight against corruption? My guest on the Global Prosperity Wonkcast this week is Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission or EFCC and a visiting fellow here at the Center for Global Development. Nuhu is working on a manuscript that tells the story of his four years (2003-2007) at the helm of the EFCC during which he won more than 275 convictions and recovered an astonishing $5 billion in stolen assets.

Nuhu explains the circumstances that led Nigeria to create the EFCC, starting with the 1999 democratic elections, the first in 16 years. The new president, Olusegun Obasanjo, had campaigned on an anti-corruption platform. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks provided an additional push, heightening international awareness of the illicit financial flows that enable terrorist networks and political corruption alike. As a result, in late 2001 Nigeria found itself on an international blacklist of countries that enable money laundering, a list maintained by the independent Financial Action Task Force. It took nearly two years for Nigerian officials to realize they were on this black list and take action to get off of it. When they finally acted, they created the EFCC, a new office charged with cracking down on money laundering.

Nuhu became the first head of this office, but lacked a budget, offices or even a staff. Through sheer tenacity, he built an institution that stood as a symbol of the capacity for good governance in Africa. By the time he left office, he oversaw a professional staff of 1,600, whom he praises as, “probably the best you could get in the world when it comes to issues of law enforcement.” His unit went after crooked politicians and criminals, often bringing them to justice on money laundering charges, much as FBI nabbed Al Capone on tax evasion.

In the Wonkcast, Nuhu and I discuss some of the crimes he prosecuted, including the colorful case of former U.S. Representative William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson, who hid thousands of ill-begotten dollars in his freezer. I learned that Jefferson’s thousands were a small slice of a broad scandal that implicated Nigerian politicians all the way up to the country’s then vice president.

Of course, law enforcement is dangerous work, and the EFCC’s targets fought back. Nuhu tells me that while he survived assassination attempts, two of his staff were not so lucky. Nevertheless, he says, casualties incurred in the fight against corruption are not in vain. “It’s a sacrifice that is really worth doing,” Nuhu explains. “It’s probably the only hope we have—unless we are able to address and stop this, we will not be able to solve the other problems confronting us.”

Listen to the Wonkcast for more stories about Nuhu’s time at the EFCC and his evolving plans for the future—which may involve a return to Nigeria. Have something to add to our discussion? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.