Why Wolfowitz Should Stay

By Nuhu Ribadu, the chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 01/05/07):

FOR the past few weeks, the world has been riveted by the difficulties of Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank, regarding a potential conflict of interest involving the salary of his partner, also a senior official there. With the bank’s board deliberating this week over how to handle the charges, the controversy now needlessly and regrettably threatens Mr. Wolfowitz’s presidency, which has been largely defined by his energetic support for a new Africa that is struggling to emerge.

Over the last two years, Mr. Wolfowitz has effectively directed the bank’s energies toward fighting poverty and improving human life. He is a champion of using international development institutions to deal with some of the world’s major problems. And he has been a steadfast supporter of the efforts of African organizations to rescue our people from the scourge of misrule, which leads to poverty, disease and early death.

Over the last three years, Nigeria, once the emblem of outlandish corruption, has become a leading reformer, and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which I head, has been at the cutting edge of these efforts. The enormous challenges we face would have proved almost insurmountable without external help, especially from the World Bank under Mr. Wolfowitz.

When disgruntled lawmakers here tried to cut off our financing and shut down critical aspects of our operation, a World Bank grant of $5 million allowed us to bring to closure important cases of political corruption involving key members of Nigeria’s ruling elite, including members of the executive branch and Parliament.

Today our work receives accolades from all corners of the globe, and the financial and moral support of our thoughtful and courageous allies has played a crucial role in our success. In a country that never saw a single conviction for fraud or corruption before the beginning of our reform campaign, we now have 150 convictions, with 400 more cases awaiting decision in the courts. We have also recovered $5 billion in stolen property. We have brought powerful politicians and businessmen to account through the criminal justice system.

These developments are gradually improving the integrity of our national life. Two weeks ago, Nigeria had its first general election intended to pass power from one elected government to another. While the election did not meet the high standards we set for ourselves, it did reveal that for citizens, the fight against corruption was a top priority — right up there with food, health care and education. In other words, Nigerians made the same connection between runaway corruption and human suffering that Mr. Wolfowitz rightly does.

Corruption is the greatest challenge to progress across much of the developing world, and as we in Nigeria know from bitter experience, this is particularly so in Africa. As Mr. Wolfowitz remarked in a recent speech, some two million Africans die from AIDS-related illnesses each year, while nearly 3,000 African children die each day from malaria and nearly 40 million are not in school. All this, he noted, despite $300 billion in international aid to Africa over the last 20 years.

Corruption has not only produced injustice and a chronic failure to effectively manage international support, it has also led to the squandering of Africa’s considerable human and natural resources. Nigeria has made nearly half a trillion dollars from oil in less than five decades — a figure that dwarfs that of international aid to the whole of Africa. And yet, around 70 percent of Nigerians live in conditions of dispiriting poverty, on incomes of less than a dollar a day. Corruption kills far more effectively than AIDS, malaria or war.

On my recent visit to the World Bank in Washington, I was greatly impressed with the remarkable changes in policy and direction that Mr. Wolfowitz had undertaken, as well as by the diversity of talents he had convened to execute his vision of a fairer world. The bank’s secretary and two vice presidents are Africans — one was my colleague in the Nigerian cabinet. Another vice president is Salvadoran.

Mr. Wolfowitz spoke eloquently for those of us in poor countries last month when he exhorted citizens of the industrial world: “As we go back to our comfortable beds tonight, we should think about the voiceless millions who may not even have beds at all, who go to sleep hungry, sick and uncertain about their future. For many it’s literally a matter of life and death.”

And he has matched words with deeds through initiatives to promote greater international cooperation with poor countries, especially regarding the recovery of assets from pilfered resources. Effective efforts at fighting corruption cannot stop at our borders when up to 80 percent of the “grand corruption” perpetrated in Africa is dependent on international mechanisms that facilitate money laundering.

Mr. Wolfowitz has made a praiseworthy effort to halt the illicit drain of money from the coffers of poor countries. Just this simple step — denying a haven for money stolen from a poor country — addresses more than half the problem of corruption in Africa.

It would be a terrible shame to bring all these efforts to a premature halt. Mr. Wolfowitz has openly acknowledged responsibility for the mistake he made. He has apologized and expressed willingness to accept the decision of the bank’s board of directors. But the board should consider how important his error really was, especially considering that the bank’s internal documents suggest that Mr. Wolfowitz tried to follow the rules from the beginning.

The board should avoid lending credence to the widespread suspicion that Mr. Wolfowitz is really being punished for his previous role in the United States Department of Defense. And it should consider the benefit Mr. Wolfowitz has brought to countries like Nigeria.