LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's president unexpectedly fired the head of the lead anti-corruption agency Wednesday, removing an official accused of being controlled by the political elite in this graft-prone nation.
A statement from President Goodluck Jonathan's office only said Farida Waziri was "effectively relieved" of her duties as chairwoman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which once garnered international praise for its pursuit of corrupt politicians.
However, the statement gave no reason for her firing. Presidential spokesman Reuben Abati did not respond to repeated requests for comment Wednesday and Waziri couldn't be reached.
Waziri leaves an agency and a cause she herself appeared to grow weary of in recent weeks.
"The best any law enforcement agency can do is properly investigate cases and file charges," she said in a speech Tuesday. "The frustrations faced by law enforcement agencies within the tedious common law process ... must be voided."
Waziri still had at least another year in her tenure before Jonathan's sudden decision, agency spokesman Femi Babafemi said. Babafemi confirmed that Waziri had been fired, but said he didn't know the president's reasons for pushing Waziri out.
The anti-graft agency came into existence only a few years after Nigeria became a democracy in 1999. Its first chief, Nuhu Ribadu, claimed at one point that Africa's most populous nation likely lost more than $380 billion to graft between 1960 and 1999.
That post-independence period saw a string of military dictatorships and failed civilian governments. About $8 billion a year has been stolen in the time since, according to analysts.
Such thefts remain easy as government budgeting at every level remains opaque, and the nation pulls in billions of dollars from its joint ventures with foreign oil firms in its crude-rich southern delta.
The looting may be rising as crude oil prices have spiked in recent years, sending more unaccounted-for cash into one of the top suppliers to the U.S.
The nation's political class reigned with impunity until the agency's creation. Under Ribadu, who later became a failed presidential opposition candidate, the agency arrested powerful state governors and earned media praise.
However, the agency under Ribadu trampled on suspects' rights while avoiding targeting the allies of then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, Human Rights Watch said in a report released in August.
The rights group also said despite its headlines, the commission has only garnered four convictions against Nigeria's political elite since its creation in 2003, with those found guilty facing little or no prison time.
The administration of late President Umaru Yar'Adua forced Ribadu from the agency in 2008. Waziri, who took over the commission, has been criticized by U.S. diplomats in leaked diplomatic cables for being unprepared and for apparently being controlled by politicians.
Others have leveled corruption allegations against her and operatives of the commission, though none has been proven.
The commission under Waziri has charged several prominent bankers over the fraud that caused the near-collapse of the country's banks in 2009. It also recently arrested and charged former House Speaker Dimeji Bankole over corruption allegations — the first major strike against the nation's political elite in many months.
Still, prosecutions by the agency have not risen since 2007, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. The rights group said the commission's funding tripled during that period.
The president appointed agency deputy Ibrahim Lamurde as the commission's acting chairman, Babafemi said. Lamurde served as a trusted official under Ribadu, but later was sidelined following his departure.
The return of Lamurde could signal a more robust and aggressive pursuit of corruption in Nigeria, though it remains unclear whether he'll remain as the commission's top official.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.