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Published On: Tue, Mar 11th, 2014

Finding Nigeria’s missing billions Shooting the messenger does not nullify the message

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NNPC v SanusiIf the findings of Nigeria’s suspended central bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, are indeed accurate, one of the biggest heists in human history has been taking place under the nose of 170m Nigerians.

The equivalent of about 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product has allegedly been siphoned from the state oil company. The sums involved are roughly equivalent to the windfalls the Nigerian state should have been receiving from the high price of oil, on which its government depends typically for 70 percent of revenue. As much as $20bn for the 19-month period between January 2012 and July 2013 is unaccounted for.

The mystery of where the money has gone remains unanswered. Nor has anything been done to plug the various holes through which large streams of state income seemingly seep. Yet, astonishingly, given the seriousness of the allegations and the detailed evidence with which Mr Sanusi has backed them up, elements within President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration have succeeded in changing the subject. Assisted by parts of the Nigerian media, the debate has shifted to focus on Mr Sanusi’s tenure at the central bank, amid a raft of accusations, some of them disturbingly religious and ethnic in character, which range from the petty to the near insane.

Mr Sanusi’s record as a central bank governor is reflected in the high opinion in which he is held by many of his peers around the world. The tight monetary policy he maintained until his suspension last month limited the damage done by malpractice elsewhere. He defended the value of the currency and brought inflation down to single digits; in doing so, shielding Nigeria’s long-suffering poor from the excesses of venal elites. At the same time, the stability he presided over during his five years at the central bank was critical in rebuilding confidence among foreign investors who had begun to pour back into Africa’s most populous nation.

Just as remarkable was the way he turned around the banking system after the 2009 crash exposed a nexus of political and business interests with billions of dollars in debt. He was resented by some top bankers for his heavy-handed approach. But without this, it is doubtful that Nigeria’s financial system would be on the firmer footing it is today.

Mr Sanusi may have his faults. He has been unafraid to speak his mind and sometimes did so in a way that appeared to be overtly political. He too may have questions to answer about the causes he championed using central bank funds and the procedures he followed to do so.

But there is nothing in the “financial recklessness” which the presidency has accused him of that comes anywhere near the scale of what has allegedly been going on at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. The wave of allegations against him bear the classic hallmarks of a smear campaign designed to tarnish the reputation of a whistleblower.

Mr Sanusi was shifting the focus of his inquiry from how much money is unaccounted for to where the money has gone when he was suspended last month. The resulting damage to Nigeria’s credibility among investors has been considerable. The central bank’s hard-won reputation for independence has been undermined, and with it the smooth transition Mr Jonathan had promised when Mr Sanusi’s tenure formally ends in June.

To anyone looking from the outside, this follows a depressingly familiar pattern. A champion of reform digs around in the swamp of Nigerian petro-politics and soon after is turfed out. The allegations against Mr Sanusi should be fairly investigated. But if Mr Jonathan wishes to preserve his own good name, he must show similar zeal in establishing the facts surrounding the missing billions. (Source: Financial Times of London)

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