Nigeria’s whistleblowing banker: Governor of Central Bank lifts the lid on his country's endemic corruption

President Goodluck Jonathan didn’t take kindly to Lamido Sanusi accusing the national oil company of embezzling billions

When $20bn (£12bn) goes missing, it is no minor matter.

Yet when Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria’s top banker, accused the national oil company of large-scale embezzlement that was startling even in an oil industry as opaque as Nigeria’s, he soon found himself paying for his indiscretion. President Goodluck Jonathan, whose leadership has been dogged by one corruption scandal after another since he took power in 2010, promptly levelled counter charges of “financial recklessness and misconduct” against the whistleblower, an internationally respected fiscal hawk who for nearly five years has headed the country’s Central Bank, and ordered his suspension.

More surprising, however, was the circulation of a mysterious document that linked Mr Sanusi, a Muslim from Nigeria’s north, to the home-grown Islamic insurgents Boko Haram, whose attacks have claimed the lives of thousands of people since 2009. A cursory investigation quickly revealed that the likely author behind the claims was none other than a presidential aide, shedding an unflattering light on an administration that appears reluctant to examine claims of massive corruption within its midst.

Nigeria’s energy sector is notoriously corrupt and mismanaged, yet those who have exposed missing billions in the past have largely been ignored. Mr Sanusi’s allegations, however, are particularly damaging, for not only is he an influential member of Nigeria’s elite, but his claims go right to the heart of corruption in government. The campaign against Mr Sanusi, 52, has alarmed foreign investors, who have long seen him as a steady hand and bulwark against pervasive corruption in Africa’s top oil producer and the continent’s second-largest economy. “The message that is being sent is a message nobody should listen to because the message is, ‘if you attack us, we will deal with you’,” Mr Sanusi said recently in a televised interview, adding that Mr Jonathan had previously asked him to resign.

Mr Sanusi is much more popular abroad than he is in at home. He has earned international plaudits during his tenure at the Central Bank, particularly for his efforts in 2009 to clean up a rotten banking sector, ousting several bank executives in the process.

Investors also credit him with reigning in inflation and stabilising the Nigerian currency, the naira, and in 2011 he was named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.

A member of the Nigerian aristocracy – an Islamic scholar whose grandfather was Emir of Kano, an ancient city in the country’s Muslim north – he cuts a colourful figure at home with loud bow ties and a willingness to speak out against the government. But his noble background that some claim makes him arrogant and a perception that he oversteps his remit as central banker have also earned him criticism domestically.

Mr Sanusi’s woes began in earnest when he called Nigeria’s top bankers together for a meeting where he threatened to expose them for helping conceal a gaping financial hole in the accounts of Nigeria National Petroleum Corp (NNPC) for 2012-13.

Unsettled by his threats, the bankers took his allegations to the seat of government, setting in motion a process that would culminate in his suspension on 20 February.

His fate seemed assured when he went public and told a Senate Finance committee on 4 February that the NNPC had failed to repatriate $20bn in oil revenue to the government, which derives 80 per cent of its revenues and 90 per cent of its foreign income from crude exports.

Instead of pledging to investigate the case of the missing billions, Mr Jonathan’s government launched a counter attack against Mr Sanusi, accusing him of financial mismanagement during his tenure at the Central Bank. The banker was in any case due to step down in June and while he said he does not want his old position back, he will take the fight to court. In an interview with The New York Times, Mr Sanusi suggested that the missing revenues were being redirected towards the ruling party’s re-election campaign, making it all the more critical for the government to discredit Mr Sanusi. Parliamentary and presidential elections are due to take place next February, although the President has not yet said if he will run.

“By making NNPC an issue now, the source of money for financing elections is threatened,” he said. “If this is stopped, there will be no money to finance the elections.”

The President’s popularity is already on the wane, thanks to a perception that he is either unable or unwilling to tackle corruption and for failing to crush the Boko Haram insurgency in the north.

Goodluck Jonathan has not promised to investigate the missing revenues (Getty) Goodluck Jonathan has not promised to investigate the missing revenues (Getty)
Also attracting increasing attention is an alleged fuel-subsidy scam, where kerosene vendors receive fuel cheaply from NNPC, yet consumers continue to pay full market price for it.

With scandals and a wave of defections plaguing Mr Jonathan’s presidency, the stakes are high. But what appears to have been an inside job to link Mr Sanusi to a rise in violence by a militant group seemed to take things too far with a plot in which a Nigerian government aide allegedly attempted to destroy Mr Sanusi’s reputation.

When a person calling himself Wendell Simlin circulated a document to Nigerian websites alleging Mr Sanusi’s links to Boko Haram, several of the recipients became suspicious. A quick search of the Word document’s metadata revealed that the author was Reno Omokri, a pastor who is also the President’s social-media adviser.

Internet sleuths also found that the document had originated from the government’s server in Abuja, while cross references with the metadata of genuine documents previously sent by Mr Omokri to newspapers appeared to match.

Mr Omokri did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

But even with the Boko Haram memo discredited, other accusations levelled at Mr Sanusi may yet stick. Newspaper editors of all stripes have backed calls for investigations into the banker’s financial propriety at the Central Bank, questioning the source of his personal wealth and donations he has made to various establishments in northern Nigeria.

Others accuse him of grandstanding and using the corruption claims to further his own career, possibly even to launch a presidential bid. The opposition alliance, the All Progressives Congress, has been quick to capitalise on Mr Sanusi’s actions, saying the “President sends... a strong signal to all Nigerians that he will not tolerate any exposure of corruption.”

Thomas Hansen, a London-based Africa analyst at global risk consultancy Control Risks, said Mr Sanusi’s allegations were within Nigeria seen less as an anti-corruption crusade than pre-election politics along ethnic and religious lines. Mr Jonathan is a Christian southerner, while Mr Sanusi is a northern Fulani Muslim. “There is an element of domestic support but overall the issue has become politicised. Pre-existing political divides have been reinforced,” he said. 

Even if Nigerians feel sceptical about Mr Sanusi’s motives, civil society believes “there is a need to blow the whistle” even if the accuser is not seen as entirely clean, Marie-Ange Kalenga, the West Africa director for Transparency International, said.

“Whether it’s blown by Mr Sanusi or somebody else is not the main question. The main question is whether something is done to stop the revenue loss,” she said. “It’s a shame that revenues that could be used to improve access to basic services are ending up in the pockets of just a few.”

In numbers

168.8m Nigeria’s population in 2012.

$262.6bn Nigeria’s GDP in 2012, according to the World Bank.

64% of the population are estimated to live on less than £1 a day.

$80bn revenue expected from oil exports in 2013.

$12bn estimated oil revenue shortfall in 2013 due to corruption and theft, according to Nigeria’s Finance Minister.

80% of government revenue comes from crude oil exports.

1/3 of Nigerian businesses paid a bribe during the last year, according to DFID.

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