The experiences in Nigeria, Tanzania and Malawi suggest that the president has virtually unlimited power to select, hire and fire the head of the country’s anti-corruption agency. This lends support to the perception that despite their independence, these agencies are highly susceptible to political pressures and that their role is inherently political.

Jaws dropped across Nigeria in July when President Muhammadu Buhari abruptly suspended Ibrahim Magu, his take-no-prisoners anti-corruption chief, and twelve other top officials at the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). A victory for Attorney General Abubakar Malami — a Buhari loyalist who faces corruption allegations himself — Magu’s removal ended a long-running power struggle between the two men. It also set off alarm bells in the media and among civil society advocates, many of whom have grown skeptical of Buhari’s anti-corruption bona fides. This widespread concern suggests that short-term power struggles inflict lasting damage on anti-corruption law enforcement efforts in developing countries.

The suspension or even dismissal of top anti-corruption officials by the president has been routine in Nigeria, Tanzania and Malawi where the research project ‘Fighting high-level corruption in Africa’, led by Dr Gerhard Anders (University of Edinburgh), examines law enforcement’s efforts to tackle high-level corruption. In all three countries, it is the president who appoints the head of the respective anti-corruption agency. In Nigeria and Malawi, the appointment requires legislative approval, whereas in Tanzania it is the president’s prerogative. In addition, the president also has the authority to suspend or dismiss the head of the anti-corruption agency. In Nigeria, the president can do so at will, unhindered by legislative oversight. In Malawi, the removal of the director of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) requires the confirmation of the parliamentary public appointments committee. In Tanzania, the president has the exclusive authority to discipline, suspend and dismiss the head of the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau (PCCB).

Many African multi-party party democracies are characterised by strong, sometimes overbearing presidents, who see it as their personal prerogative to hire and fire officials at will, with or without cause. This is due to the presidential systems where the executive enjoys far-reaching legal powers and the deeply entrenched culture of personal rule established during the aftermath of independence.

In Nigeria, presidents typically do not wait long before sacking their predecessors’ anti-corruption chiefs. President Yar’Adua, for example, removed Nuhu Ribadu — President Obasanjo’s EFCC chief — in 2007; President Jonathan likewise removed Yar’Adua’s appointee not long after his 2011 inauguration.

Presidents in the three countries have not been shy to use these extensive powers to discipline and replace the heads of the respective anti-corruption agencies. In Nigeria, presidents typically do not wait long before sacking their predecessors’ anti-corruption chiefs. President Yar’Adua, for example, removed Nuhu Ribadu — President Obasanjo’s EFCC chief — in 2007; President Jonathan likewise removed Yar’Adua’s appointee not long after his 2011 inauguration.

In Tanzania, there have been three directors-general at the PCCB in five years. In December 2015, newly elected Tanzanian President Magufuli fired the PCCB’s director general for ‘incompetence’. He also dismissed several senior officials at the PCCB for acts of indiscipline. Less than two years later, Magufuli dismissed the new director general, accusing him of failing to investigate a high-level corruption case. The newer director general stayed for only one year in office. In September 2019, Magufuli transferred him to head the Intelligence and Security Service and promoted his deputy to the post of director general.

In Malawi, a change in the Presidency has usually led to a change at the helm of the ACB. For example, after assuming office in 2014, the new President Bingu Wa Mutharika appointed a new director at the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Only two years later, he incurred Mutharika’s wrath when the ACB arrested former President Bakili Muluzi. Mutharika suspended him and after a few weeks, the ACB director resigned at the president’s request. The director of Public Prosecutions who had also been appointed by Mutharika did the exact opposite but suffered the same fate. After he dropped the charges, probably assuming this to be what the president wanted, he was also asked to resign.

To ensure the independence of the law enforcement agencies tackling high-level corruption, it is important to establish and adhere to transparent appointment procedures based exclusively on applicants’ merit, performance and potential. It is key to employ robust vetting procedures, rules of nominations and appointments…

The experiences in Nigeria, Tanzania and Malawi suggest that the president has virtually unlimited power to select, hire and fire the head of the country’s anti-corruption agency. This lends support to the perception that despite their independence, these agencies are highly susceptible to political pressures and that their role is inherently political. Whilst it may very well be the case that the dismissed officials were indeed incompetent or failed in discharging their duties, the highly dramatic removal by the president in a show of his power, does in fact undermine the bureaucratic processes that are key to the effective functioning of any organisation. However, in recent years there have been encouraging developments in Malawi, which could serve as example for Nigeria and Tanzania. In 2018, Parliament amended the Corrupt Practices Act to curtail the president’s discretion. According to the amendment, the president will appoint a panel. The panel submits a list of three candidates from which the president will make an appointment, which has to be confirmed by the public appointment committee. Although very modest and not going far enough, this is a step in the right direction.

To ensure the independence of the law enforcement agencies tackling high-level corruption, it is important to establish and adhere to transparent appointment procedures based exclusively on applicants’ merit, performance and potential. It is key to employ robust vetting procedures, rules of nominations and appointments and, even more importantly, enforcement of regulations regarding dismissals and suspensions from service. This will safeguard the independence of law enforcement officials.

Gerhard Anders is with the University of Edinburgh, while Matthew Page is with the Chatham House, both in the United Kingdom.