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Interview with Nasir El-Rufai: Nigeria’s Leading Reformer Comes Home

As many friends, colleagues, and readers of this blog are aware, for more than a year I have been working along with an international team to support Nasir El-Rufai, the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja, Nigeria, and defend him from a politically motivated attack based on false allegations (see our White Paper for more info). El-Rufai is very well known in Nigeria as one of the country’s most experienced reformers – a man of committed principle, vision, and a deep sense of public service. 

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When it comes to talking about El-Rufai and Nigeria, I make nopretense of objectivity. I strongly believe in Nasir and his ability tolead, though I am sure he would modestly disagree with thischaracterization. Thanks to the hard work and perseverance of the team,and strong support from many Nigerian citizens, we have successfullydemonstrated to the world that the cases thrown against him are withoutmerit, evidence, or grounds, pursued by the very individuals who havethe most to fear from an open, democratic, and judicially independentgovernment.

Now after having spent two years away from home while earning anadvanced degree from Harvard University plus a stint in Dubai, El-Rufaiis headed back home, arriving to Abuja at 5AM on Saturday, May 1. Ipublish these details out of a concern for Nasir’s personal safety (hisfriend and ally Nuhu Ribadu has survived several assassination attemptsfor his anti-corruption work), because it is important that we makeeveryone aware of these circumstances, and that we make it clear thatthe world is watching very closely. We have notified the personnel ofseveral embassies, debriefed key members of international institutions,and done everything possible to make sure that none of these corruptcriminals hiding behind the incapacitated president dare to make a moveagainst El-Rufai upon his arrival.

The return to Nigeria of the country’s leading reformer is deeply symbolic, and caps off a tumultuous and dramatic series of political events which began when President Umaru Yar’Adua disappeared from the public eye to receive medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, and didn’t utter a word of consolation or leadership to the country for many months – even when a confused young radical was arrested trying to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day.  Major media are paying close attention to El-Rufai’s return.  Tom Burgis at the Financial Times just published a terrific interview with him, writing that “the former minister has been a central figure in the emergence of new campaign groups that have come to the fore during Nigeria’s recent power-struggle.”  Nasir has also been interviewed by the BBC and many Nigerian and African newspapers regarding his much-awaited return.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Nasir here in London right before he packed his bags, and ask him a few questions.

What were some of the factors which led to your decision to return home?

Well I have actually always wanted to return, and these two years of forced exile have been very challenging, to be so far away from my family, my friends, and my country.  I had originally planned to return last December, however as you will recall the country suffered a vacuum of leadership and period of uncertainty before Acting President Goodluck Jonathan had been appointed.

Are you planning to run for president or for any other office?

I believe that it’s pre-mature to speak with much certainty about that, and I can confirm that I have not made any decision regarding candidacy for any office.  I am, however, committed to playing a role along with others to help my country elect the most capable and worthy individuals, and to contribute to the public service sector through my ongoing work with civil society and youth groups.

Are you worried about your personal safety?

Yes, of course, but this is no different from any other time I have had to worry about security, and anyways such matters are quite outweighed by the urgency of other problems we must address in Nigeria.  In my case, the person behind my persecution was President Yar’Adua and rent-seekers within his inner circle.  The President is still alive, but is almost completely incapacitated and brain-damaged from his illness, unable to stand, to speak, or to demonstrate coherent reason – this is what has been confirmed by the clerics who have visited him, and no one is disputing his state of health.  Acting President Goodluck Jonathan has sidelined Yar’Adua’s cabal, and they are politically weaker, however the infrastructure which allowed for them to go after their enemies is still completely intact, so considerable risks remain. 

How would you characterize the political situation on the ground?

Although things have been managed with great care and sensitivity, and although the country is no longer so close to the brink of the precipice, we are not out of the woods quite yet.  The people surrounding the president have spent many years plundering the country, and have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend in order to destabilize the government or politically attack any threat to their revenue streams.  This is one of the reasons why Jonathan has been so careful and agnostic, and one of the reasons our legal process has been so slow to properly remove the president formerly from power as obligated under the constitution.  These people are mainly motivated to protect their wealth, and any bribery investigations into the conduct of the last government may lead to confiscations, so we can expect them to push back. 

There are still a lot of difficult challenges to overcome to put the Yar’Adua era behind us, and repair all the damage that has been done to the functioning of the country’s institutions.  We must urgently address corruption, which although has always been an endemic and systemic problem in Nigeria, has grown much, much worse over the course of the Yar’Adua administration.  For example, I believe that steps must be taken to make every public contract and transaction completely open to the public and media for oversight – we need a freedom of information act more than anyone.  In general terms, I view political reform in Nigeria as a marathon, not a sprint, so we must work patiently and with purpose over many years to bring more openness and transparency to the government and create the conditions for civil society to flourish.

What are your plans when you arrive?

On a personal level, I would like to reconnect with my family members, many of whom I have not seen in two years, and I want to get involved in what I have always wanted to do – organizing young people to become involved in public life.  The greatest tragedy in Nigeria is that our best and brightest do not have the opportunities they should have, and end up migrating to other countries.  Back home, some of the very worse elements of our society are the ones who end up getting involved in politics.  I would like to work on convincing young people that politics are worth participating in.  For example, I have always wanted to establish a high quality, independent think tank to advise on development, governance, and economic policy, which may help bring about a new generation of leaders to participate in elections.