Nuhu Ribadu Returns to Nigeria: So what?

07/20/2010 01:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am speaking with an executive of a multi-national company with offices in Nigeria and I bring up the fact that Nuhu Ribadu, Nigeria's informally exiled anti-corruption czar has returned to his position as head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. He all but responded, "Nu, who?" and he wasn't alone. I spoke with other similarly positioned executives whose responses likewise echoed a lack of enthusiasm.

Anti-corruption campaigners around the world could not stop talking about Nuhu's return. It was considered a victory, albeit it a small one, in the global war against corruption: one of its famed foot soldiers was being allowed to return to the battlefield, the narrative went. The fact that it perhaps did not send equally thunderous applause through the business community is telling. Are corruption czars ineffective in tackling corruption? Or does the anti-corruption movement expect too much of them whereas private actors rightly curb their enthusiasm?

The answers is: a little bit of both. Corruption czars do not effectively tackle corruption because they only target half of the corruption problem. In all corruption transactions there exists a supply side and a demand side. The private side is said to be the 'supplier' of the bribe and the public side is the 'demander' of the bribe. The majority of anti-corruption efforts for the past 20 years, has focused mainly on the 'demand' side, i.e. going after corrupt government officials with police powers of investigation and prosecution.

Nuhu Ribadu's former role in Nigeria was in line with the traditional school of anti-corruption enforcement. The problem with this methodology, however, is that it only targets half of the problem: while certain government employees are pursued viciously (and sometimes for political reasons), private actors seem less fearful of such persecution as indicated by the response I received from all some Nigeria-based executives.

Recent efforts by both national and international governments are moving to change this but such progress takes time. Whilst the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are doing all they can to target the supply-side of corruption by enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices, companies know that the reach of the FCPA can only go so far. The DOJ and SEC do not have the resources nor jurisdictional capacity to pursue all businesses engaged in bribery around the world.

If the supply side of the corruption problem does not notice the return of one of Africa's
most notable corruption czars, perhaps such roles are not as effective as the anti-corruption movement would like us to think, and rightfully so. No corruption czar should be so powerful as to send shock through government and the business community alike by his or her mere presence -- that's a dictator's job.

Moreover, resting the hopes of a billion dollar movement on one person is too detrimental both to the movement and the person. The movement's progress is put at risk when entrusting its ambitions to the faculties of one man. Corruption czars have not fared well in Africa, or the world over. If they are lucky, they will be exiled from their country under threat of death and be given an appointment at a Western university or think-tank; Mr. Ribadu was one of these lucky few. The unlucky ones end up six feet under or fade into obscurity as political and social untouchables.

Nuhu Ribadu undoubtedly deserves a hero's return. He has sacrificed himself and his family for his work and a greater cause. However, we all need to support his efforts by getting involved. We, as consumers, have the power to affect change with our purchases, I contend. Corporate Responsibility Magazine puts out an annual list of the best corporate citizens; conversely it has just published a black list of companies that lack the requisite transparency for laudation. Human Rights Watch also has a list of the best corporate citizens and the worse. The information exists for consumers to make conscious choices about their purchases vis-à-vis the corruption agenda. Do you think your next purchase will be a corruption-free purchase?