Last Thursday, in a sleek townhouse located along the quaint pedestrian-only cobblestone block of Washington Mews on the New York University campus, something disappointingly authentic happened.
Foreign policy and development researchers and enthusiasts, journalists, professors and students of all stripes gathered in arresting anticipation of the arrival of one man: Ekpo Nta. Who is Ekpo Nta? Direct that question toward Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and you may be told that Nta is the man who is going to clean up the vast corruption network in the resource-rich, economically imbalanced country.
As the recently-anointed Chairman of Nigeria’s Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offenses Commission (ICPC), Ekpo Nta has a distinct and power-weilding vantage point from which to speak about truth, justice and the neo-Nigerian way. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear what the man had to say.
After two relatively restrained introductory speeches by representatives of Africa House–the NYU-based institute exploring modern issues on the continent–the man of the moment rose to speak. Acknowledging the pressure-cooker role he has assumed, Nta joked that President Jonathan had made the right choice in choosing him, because his hair had turned grey prior to taking the job on, unlike a certain US President we know. (Rimshot, please.)
Yet in the first few minutes of Nta’s monologue, it was obvious that any hopes for an engaging and straightforward discussion on corruption was born from my own naiveté.
An accomplished, now-retired civil service worker who currently owns and runs a children’s private school, Nta expressed his belief that education and universities hold the key to ending corruption. While it’s an inarguable statement–education has the potential to universally transform societies in as little as one generation–in that moment, it was tough to see why the head of a corruption council was talking like an education minister.
When he touched on ways that he and the ICPC are fulfilling its mission, the revelations were underwhelming. For example, the group is making progress on identifying non-wealthy men who suddenly are publicly seen driving fancy cars, or residing in new pieces of property they suddenly own. Small potatoes, especially when it sounds like the extraordinarily wealthy are hovering high above the ICPC’s radar. And even while he expressed appreciation to Western banks for increasingly refusing to register new bank accounts through which the wealthy could launder tainted funds, he gave no word on whether any of these moneybag holders in Nigeria were being held accountable for their actions. His talk continued to brim with non-sequitors and empty-ended anecdotes. Little, if any, substance was being said.
Some attendees were more understanding.
Public radio employee Ebong Udoma, saw where Nta was coming from. “He was explaining his philosophy and approach to his new role,” he said.
As far as Udoma saw it, Nta was wise to focus on the big picture, if you will. The big, abstract, hazy picture.
The Q&A session immediately following was just as telling in how uninformative Nta was willing to be. He prefaced the session by saying he reserved the right to not answer questions he shouldn’t, and invoked that right after a journalist inquired about the controversial appointment of First Lady Patience Jonathan to the governmental post of Permanent Secretary for Bayelsa earlier this year.
When I asked UnveilingOurAfrica.com founder Christine Zita Dako-MacMurray whether she found Nta forthcoming, she soberly replied, “No. His answers were very elusive.”
I agreed. Yet despite our mutual disappointment, we couldn’t exactly fault him. In this instance, our balmy idealism was superseded by lukewarm pragmatism, not chilly disdain.
By the event’s conclusion, it was clear that Epko Nta has a very, very difficult job. What was less clear was whether he was very bad at it, or very good at it. While his major purpose is fighting corruption, in order for him to make any lasting impact he’s got to stick around, at least for the full five-year term. Thus, for Nta to survive, the man must undoubtedly pick his battles wisely. As he progresses with one eye open across a minefield of unwarranted favors, hidden money and deep relationships, one thing is clear: I do not envy him.