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Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera
Eromo Egbejule

The rise, fall and rise again of Nuhu Ribadu, Nigeria’s new security chief

Nigeria's new National Security Adviser Nuhu Ribadu (r) in a handshake with his immediate predecessor Babagana Monguno on June 26, 2023 [Twitter/@NuhuRibadu]

Lagos, Nigeria – In 2006, Nuhu Ribadu was one of Nigeria’s most powerful men with a trove of secrets about the country’s elite.

As pioneer chairperson of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) from 2003 to 2007, he reported only to Olusegun Obasanjo, president at the time, bypassing bureaucratic burdens within the security hierarchy and civil service.

In an age of rising cybercrime fraud, rank-and-file con artists feared Ribadu, a regal, soft-spoken figure. Governors and millionaires were worried when he mentioned their names publicly; one minister was fired from office, and three of Nigeria’s 36 governors were impeached within two years due to pressure from the EFCC. Even the police chief, Ribadu’s boss at the time, was tried, convicted and given a prison sentence.

The African Union, World Bank, and United Nations appointed Ribadu to boards and committees on recovery of stolen assets.

So when Ribadu told the BBC in October 2006 that $380m had been embezzled or wasted by Nigerian leaders since independence from Britain in 1960, that figure became a reference point for discussions about graft in Africa’s largest democracy.

But his star fizzled within a year.

A new police chief suspended Ribadu and sent him on a training course before letting him go from the police office. It was a decision believed to be politically motivated after a London court jailed another ex-governor James Ibori – an influential associate of then-president Umaru Yar’Adua – over the theft of $200m in state funds. Ribadu testified during the trial, accusing Ibori of trying to bribe him with $15m in cash.

“When Ribadu was ousted, Washington responded very negatively, pushing back on the Yar’Adua administration,” which succeeded Obasanjo’s in May 2007, said Matthew Page, associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House but a United States Department of Defense official at the time.

“Washington felt like it had invested a lot of time, money and energy in Ribadu personally and the EFCC generally and that Yar’Adua was throwing that all away. … I don’t think international cooperation with, and perceptions of, the EFCC ever fully recovered,” he told Al Jazeera.

This June, Ribadu, 62, was fully thrust into national consciousness again when he was named Nigeria’s new national security adviser by new President Bola Tinubu.

In this role, he will oversee Nigeria’s domestic and international security needs and commitments, supervise the various military chiefs, and regularly report to the president.

Nigeria’s new National Security Adviser Nuhu Ribadu [Twitter/@NuhuRibadu]

The second coming

Before Ribadu’s resurfacing in government, his integrity was being questioned as he delved into partisan politics, bonding with members of the elite who he had previously criticised or prosecuted or their friends and relatives.

He tried to parley his popularity while at the EFCC to run for president in 2011 on the platform of the Action Congress, a party led by Tinubu, but he placed third. In the years that followed, he switched parties twice and failed to win the governorship of his state, Adamawa, but remained a Tinubu associate.

In his new role, Ribadu will again report solely to the president but work closely with a number of controversial characters as fellow cabinet members, including former governor Atiku Bagudu, who alongside a son of the late dictator Sani Abacha forfeited millions of dollars to US authorities.

The new security adviser has said Tinubu will “vigorously pursue” a fight against corruption, a quote that has been ridiculed by critics of the president who point to a long list of corruption allegations against Tinubu and questions about the source of his wealth.

“I think Nuhu Ribadu is a different person now. … The same people he referred to as looters, he is interacting with them to gain their support,” Auwal Rafsanjani, head of Transparency International Nigeria, told Al Jazeera. “He’s going to find it very difficult to convince Nigeria or the international community that he’s still the same person who was fighting corruption when he was in the EFCC.”

Even his supporters acknowledge that Ribadu 2.0 is a different character from his previous iteration as Nigeria’s anti-corruption tsar because of his foray into partisan politics. They wonder whether he can help change Nigeria’s kleptocratic politics from within or be changed by it. Those doubts have been fuelled by photos of him with some of those who he prosecuted, including one in 2022 of him grinning alongside Ibori and other politicians.

His critics insist that claims of his credibility have always been elastic, stretched by those whose bidding he did while in office, and say he was Obasanjo’s anointed son sent to hunt political enemies within and outside the ruling People’s Democratic Party.

Transparency International’s Rafsanjani disagrees.

“Some people say he was a tool for political witch-hunting. … Nobody will come after you if you don’t have corruption cases, so even though some people will see it as political witch-hunting, the persons who he went after actually committed the crimes,” Rafsanjani said.

Today, there are whispers that Ribadu is being groomed for elective office or being used to boost the standing of an already unpopular administration. The appointment of Ribadu – a household name in Nigeria and abroad – to a role that is now “politicised” is a matter of “window-dressing”, Page told Al Jazeera.

“Appointing credible figures to key positions is a time-honoured tactic that kleptocratic regimes around the world use to inoculate themselves against domestic and international criticism,” he said.

Can Ribadu perform?

With parts of Nigeria being overrun by armed non-state actors, the new security adviser will already have a desk full of files to attend to.

When Ribadu was last in government, Boko Haram was merely a sect conducting open-air readings in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. Today, the rebel group has spread into his home state of Adamawa and across Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, displacing more than two million people while one of its factions has sworn allegiance to ISIL (ISIS).

Nigeria’s security agencies, stretched thin by years of operating on resources thinned by misappropriations by senior officials, have been mired in multiple scandals for years. In December 2015, former national security adviser Sambo Dasuki was charged in a $68m fraud as part of an investigation into a missing $2bn meant for the fight against Boko Haram. The case is still in court.

There have also been repeated complaints of extrajudicial killings and a lack of interagency intelligence coordination. From February 2014 to September 2022, there were at least 14 incidents of “accidental bombings” of unarmed villagers by Nigeria’s military, a pattern authorities have often denied.

Page, who still sees Ribadu as a “credible leader”, believes he “has what it takes to point Nigeria’s defence and security sector in the right direction”.

Not everyone is so certain.

There are mounting concerns about whether a former policeman-turned-politician can succeed where multiple generals have failed – in tackling insecurity. There is also the matter of having to work more with federal agencies. 

“In his first [coming], he was a relatively unknown junior officer whose sole power derived from the backing he had from the then-president in a role that didn’t require much consensus building or working through others,” Tunde Ajileye, partner at Lagos-based geopolitical risk advisory SBM Intelligence, told Al Jazeera. “In contrast, he now emerges after having been a politician himself, having had to make deals upon deals and, therefore, with the necessary baggage that brings.”

In Nigeria’s security architecture, the military is also seen as being superior to other security agencies, so there are questions about whether the service chiefs will report to a policeman who retired with a lesser rank than theirs.

That, experts say, depends on the president’s backing.

“It is unlikely the core military men will respect an ex-policeman to the degree he may need,” Ajileye told Al Jazeera. “However, crucially, many of the key agencies the NSA will do his work through are … mainly intelligence agencies. A lot will hinge on the president’s positioning … military chiefs will fall in line if it is clear that the NSA has his full backing.”

Already, the new security adviser’s celebrity status is on full display as is his eagerness to please the president. Unlike his predecessors, he already has an active presence on social media.

In June, he left Abuja to join dignitaries converging in Lagos to welcome Tinubu back from a foreign trip, a mission that drew criticism from Nigerians and sparked a national conversation on waste and misplaced priorities by government officials.

While these are still early days for the new administration, there is a sense among the public that the issue of insecurity is not being treated with the urgency it deserves.

“Security should be the number one priority of the Tinubu administration, and Ribadu’s performance will go a long way in determining how well it will perform in this task,” Ajileye said.

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