Embattled Nigerian Central Bank Governor on ‘Overcoming the Fear of Vested Interests’, in TEDx Talk

Embattled Nigerian Central Bank Governor talks about Overcoming and Confronting the Fear of Vested Interests in TEDx Talk in August 2013 Abuja, Nigeria.

Some excerpts:

“…I have learnt in the past 4 your years in Abuja that if we understand that (vested interests), we may begin to unlock the key to how to change our world, the world of a country in which we live”

“Everyday we talk about potentials, everyday, and yet China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Vietnam, Brazil…all of those countries have turned the potential they had into reality. What is the one thing we need to do to turn this potential into reality? In my four years in Abuja, I have come to the conclusion that we need to overcome the fear of vested interests”

“I came to the Central Bank (in 2009) knowing that banks had problems believing that these problems were caused by a global crisis… And that they would be fixed by addressing the normal risk management issues in banks. Shortly after… I discovered that the Nigerian banking system is infested with the same corruption of the rentier system of this country, that a number of banks chief execs had fleeced their banks, using depositors funds to buy property all over the world just like people do in ministries or government agencies”

“The fundamental character of the Nigerian state is that for decades, since we found oil, it has existed not to serve the people, but as a site for rent extraction by a very small minority that controls political power and it doesn’t matter whether this group comes from North or South, or Muslim or Christian, or Military or Civilian, the state has always been a site for rent extraction”

“The system that was supposed to protect depositors and handle criminals was used and manipulated to promoted a Judge so that he would not convict a thief (bank CEO). Now this is an example…of the kinds of things that stop a country from reaching its true potential”

“After we discovered the things that happened in the banks, the critical thing was we had to make a decision that would pitch us against powerful economic and political forces. We were dealing with chief execs that in 2009 had become invincible. They were in the seat of power. They had economic power and they had bought political protection. They were into political parties, they financed elections and they believed that nobody could touch them”

“Banks do not fail. When people say banks have failed, it is like saying a man whose throat was slit has died. He did not die. He was killed. And those that murdered the banks, those who destroyed these deposits have always walked away. They become Senators, they become governors, they become captains of industry, they set up new banks and they continue… And [for] the millions of poor people! that’s it”

“But the banking industry is just one part of Nigeria. What is happening to other parts?”

“We don’t have development because vested interests continue to rape the country and take the money out. And the only way to move from potential to reality is to stop preaching and to start asking ourselves : how can we overcome the fear of vested interests and how can we confront them?”

The one thing I learnt from banking is that they (Vested interests) are not to be feared, they stand on quick sand, they’re not very intelligent people and they’ve got only two tools: 1. Their ability to bribe/induce 2. Their threats to destroy reformers

“We have to ask ourselves as a country: how have we been reduced to a level far below our potential?”

“We have 65 million young people in Nigeria. What does it take for one of you to get your votes and be president of the country? What does it take to address these issues sector by sector, identify the interests and confront them? Why does it take the fuel subsidy removal for us to come out and challenge the rot that is in our country? What are we afraid of? We are afraid of losing the security that we have today”

“We must recognise that at the heart of 90% of our problems from Boko Haram to ethnic crises to unemployment to the lack of education to the lack of healthcare is that there are people who profit from the poverty and underdevelopment of this country, and these people are called ‘vested interests’… So long as they remain entrenched, so long as we don’t overcome the fear of them and dislodge them, we are not going to find a solution to this problem and we are not going to reach our true potential”

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Nigeria’s Missing Billions and Trillions

Anti-corruption tzar and head of the Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force. Mallam Nuhu Ribadu

It used to be tens of millions of naira and occasionally, hundreds of millions of naira and when a corruption incident amounting to a billion naira was mentioned, we were stunned, disgusted and spoke about it intensely for weeks. Now misappropriation of public funds in Nigeria is recorded in billions and trillions of naira such that cases involving mere millions no longer elicit media scrutiny or a shocked reaction from the public. The increase in the scale of corruption has been followed closely by an increase in our disillusionment as we are becoming numbed to the mind-boggling figures.

The mass protests that accompanied the removal of fuel subsidy in January this year led to the inauguration of probe panels such as the Farouk Lawan-led House of Representatives Committee examining the fuel subsidy regime, the Nuhu Ribadu-led Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force (PRSTF) on the management of the oil sector, and to a lesser extent hastened deliberations on the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB).

These panels have all unearthed fraud of epic proportions in the oil sector: N1.3trn ($6.8bn) lost to fuel subsidy fraud, N1trn ($6bn) per annum lost to oil theft (bunkering), opaque oil deals short-changing Nigeria of billions of dollars by marketers and International Oil Companies (IOCs) through gas price-fixing deals and non-payment of royalties and signature bonuses, and other such cases where billions of dollars are lost to various vested interests. This is in addition to monies stolen in Ministries Departments and Agencies most recently, the physical theft of N2.1bn ($14m) in newly printed notes from the Nigerian Security Printing and Minting Corporation (NSPMC). The list is endless.

An aerial view of an illegal refinery in Ogoni land, in the oil-producing Niger-Delta. Source: Msnbcmedia.com

An editorial of The Punch newspaper estimates that over N5trn ($30bn) has been misappropriated since 2010. The global audit firm KPMG rates Nigeria as having the “highest value of fraud reported” in Africa, at N225bn ($1.5bn). Nigeria is rated as the 35th most corrupt country, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The figures and the reports are revealing as they are damning.

The initial shock at the scale of corruption is gradually giving way to a numbness and indifference. Many like me perhaps, have given up on using calculators to convert the billions of dollars to whatever currency equivalents just to grasp the full scale of funds lost. We’re gradually drifting to a comfortable zone of intentional ignorance convincing ourselves that the $6bn dollars lost to subsidy fraud or the hundreds of millions of dollars lost daily to oil bunkering are mere numbers. The reality though, gnaws relentlessly in one’s subconscious knowing that the judicious utilization of these monies could significantly improve the ailing education sector, health sector, transport infrastructure and the fortunes of the whole country, yet they are diverted by a few.

As the quality of our public services and infrastructure continues to deteriorate, we have become numbed by the scale of corruption and decay and instead find it easier to seek lesser alternatives. This translates to outsourcing education to private schools at home and education institutions abroad; outsourcing healthcare to private hospitals whose exorbitant charges barely merit the quality of services they provide, and… well, private jets litter Nigerian airports for those who can afford to escape the pot-hole ridden roads or the domestic airlines ably described as “flying coffins”.

The inescapable reality though, is we’ll eventually have to wake up from our reverie and realize that playing the ostrich is not sustainable as we postpone the inevitable. The mismanagement of public funds has direct bearing on our collapsing infrastructure, insecurity, deplorable standard of education, unemployment and a host of other ills which are all interconnected – none is isolated from the other. If funds in every sector are constantly frittered away, then the efficiency of public services and ability of regulatory agencies to regulate the private sector will be affected, resulting in collapsing infrastructure and poor services with barely any maintenance or sustenance.

The crash site of the Dana Air mishap in June 2012, Lagos. Source: ChannelsTV.com

Feigning indifference means we will individually continue to seek opportunities (legally, extra-legally or illegally) to fund our ability to bypass or “persevere” through the infrastructural decay in order to afford the prohibitive fees and fares in private schools, private hospitals and air travel, and to tolerate the barely mediocre and mostly poor services provided. Hence, the vicious cycle of corruption persists. Ignoring these issues for convenient alternatives doesn’t confer immunity on anyone from the problems therein either.

This reality of our collective vulnerability is constantly drummed into our psyches with the frequency of deadly air crashes notably the Dana Air crash, the air mishap which left Governor Suntai of Taraba mentally incapacitated and the most recent fatal crash which claimed the lives of Kaduna state governor, Patrick Yakowa, General Andrew Azazi, their aides and crew members. Clearly, air travel is no longer much safer than travelling on the treacherous Nigerian roads in dire need of repair.

At some point we will have to ensure our cynicism not only translates to indifference but to collective action towards these issues that affect our daily existence by demanding for accountability and judicious management of public funds. Could a fraction of the national energy spent for the better part of the last two months vigorously debating Chinua Achebe’s polarising personal memoirs on the 1960s Biafran war be channelled towards some of these problems? A starting point could be DEMANDING for some concrete action from the government based on recommendations of the Ribadu report (PDF).

Lest we forget the power of collective action, the fuel subsidy protests aka Occupy Nigeria yielded some results – it led to the probe panels which have unearthed and confirmed the scale and depth of corruption in Nigeria’s golden goose, the oil sector. It might be up to Nigerians again to ensure tangible action is taken on these reports and they are not left to gather dust as usual. How about starting with the Ribadu report? Surely it shouldn’t be problematic for the government to implement a report it commissioned…

Engaging the Right African Leaders

Last week was arguably a sad one for most if not all Nigerians as the government’s credibility was assaulted on two fronts simultaneously – security wise and diplomatically. The first was a series of controversial statements credited to the former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo on the state of the nation and the second which eclipsed the latter, was the despicable terrorist bomb attack on the Nigerian Police Force Headquarters allegedly by the radical Boko Haram sect. Any Nigerian should be reasonably saddened and even infuriated by former President Obasanjo’s antics at various international fora and would be questioning why, he keeps being involved (or involving himself) at such gatherings knowing his antecedents, and thereby further rubbishing the already soiled image of Nigeria.

Obasanjo is notorious for his controversial, sometimes comically, crude remarks that perplex his audience to the point of irritation and on rare occasions provokes a sense of bewildered amusement. This peculiar “talent” of his appears to be particularly amplified whenever he is addressing a large gathering of important personalities within the country or mainly abroad. It is in this mould that his recent comments, last week at the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva Switzerland that he would be one of the prime targets of rampaging, unemployed youth in the event of a revolution, and that the current administration lacks the “…will… and consistency” to fight corruption because corrupt people are “strongly entrenched” in the system, expectedly elicited varying responses from Nigerians. The latter statement in particular would have been the subject of a much wider debate if it hadn’t been overshadowed by the bomb attack on Police Headquarters.

Sure Obasanjo true to his boisterous and cunning self is no stranger to such contentious remarks whether at home or abroad. In fact in May 2010 at the Leon H. Sullivan Dialogue at the National Press Center, Washington DC, Obasanjo reportedly stated that even Jesus Christ cannot conduct acceptable elections in Nigeria. Some people found it amusing, others dismissed it as “Baba” acting in his characteristic attention-seeking manner, others yet found it embarrassing while many were disgusted at such blasphemous remark coming from a self-acclaimed “born-again” Christian. This is just part of his personality which at times seems crudely witty and humorous but increasingly these days becoming irksome, shocking, embarrassing and extremely infuriating due to the obvious dubiousness, duplicity, mistruths and outright manipulation of history underlining those statements.

The statement that he would be one of the prime targets in the event of a revolution is true to the letter given his increasing unpopularity from the twilight of his regime onwards due to his failed attempt at tenure elongation; his witch-hunting of political opponents using the anti-corruption agency EFCC; the lack of transparency and accountability in the management of oil revenues from unprecedented oil windfalls as he personally oversaw the Petroleum Ministry; institution of garrison and “do-or-die” politics and by implication his gross disdain for the rule of law evidenced by his complicity in the Anambra Ngige saga and most importantly, further impoverishment of millions of Nigerians despite huge amounts of money spent on poverty eradication programs like National Poverty Eradication Program (NAPEP), it is no surprise then that many are of the opinion that Obasanjo is allegedly the most unpopular and infamous politician in the country. The remark is nevertheless worrying as it is an implicit acknowledgement of the failure of his administration given the tremendous resources and opportunities at its disposal to take Nigeria to greater heights. In other climes, the media would have torn him to shreds for that remark.

As regards to the more controversial, scathing but dubious remark on the inability of the present administration to tackle corruption because corrupt people are “entrenched” in the system, one cannot but feel a sense of irritation, embarrassment and anger. The irritation and embarrassment stem from the realization that no former-leader of a nation aiming to be among the world’s top 20 economies, and to join the realm of emerging powers would go off to foreign lands, bad-mouthing his successors which he was very much instrumental in their emergence. I doubt if former US President George Bush would at any international event, say despicable things about the Obama administration, despite their being in different political parties or even coming closer home, former Ghanaian President John Kuffour bad-mouthing his successor President John Atta Mills.

The anger comes from the obvious duplicity, deception and brazen faux self-righteousness underlining such an explosive statement which is highly indicative of an increasingly erratic person, trying vainly to absolve himself of his role in the sorry state of affairs in Nigeria. Passing such a damning verdict on the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan and that of his predecessor late President Umaru Yar’Adua insults the collective sensibilities of Nigerians because no one can forget in a hurry how Yar’Adua was single-handedly imposed on Nigerians by Obasanjo via the 2007 elections adjudged by both local and international observers as the worst in the nation’s history. Or even the very prominent role played by Obasanjo in the emergence of Jonathan as the ruling PDP’s presidential candidate and his subsequent victory at the April 2011 presidential polls. It is an open secret that Obasanjo is the President’s unofficial chief adviser or in Nigerian parlance, his “godfather” for wherever you see the unassuming and pleasant face of Goodluck Jonathan, you are certain to see Obasanjo’s dark, ominous and amorphous silhouette lurking in the shadows. If Jonathan and late Yar’Adua’s administrations were and are incapable of fighting corruption as Obasanjo claims, can it be deduced then that it is Obasanjo’s fault because he was instrumental in their emergence? If as Obasanjo claims, the reason for this is because corrupt people are entrenched in the system, then is he tacitly admitting that he is one of those “entrenched” in the system given his prominent role in government and in the emergence of his successors? In saner climes, such statement would have warranted a rebuttal by the government, distancing itself from Obasanjo to signify its displeasure over such comments that obviously undermine it in no small measure.

The most infuriating aspect of all this by far is the fact that Obasanjo these days chooses to express his erratic and unstable behaviour in influential international fora. If this were done at home in Nigeria, it wouldn’t be so painful but this happening abroad is very embarrassing, further denting the already battered image of Nigeria, subjecting Nigerians to ridicule which is completely unacceptable. Infact my Facebook status update on this issue last week was so strongly worded that I had to delete it entirely because I felt it was un-African and inappropriate to refer to an “elder” and former President in that way (despite such an elder disrespecting himself) as words like “delusional” and “schizophrenic” featured prominently. It is particularly exasperating that of all the intellectual heavy weights with impressive records of achievements in office which Nigeria has to offer, who can ably represent a new face and new generation of enlightened Nigerians in international fora such as Donald Duke, Babatunde Fashola, Nuhu Ribadu or Nasir El-Rufai – their various shortcomings notwithstanding – it is Obasanjo rather that chooses to show-up at these events humiliating Nigerians. I understand that most international donors and bodies are increasingly adopting a new approach of involving African (former) leaders, policy makers or influential individuals in high-level development policy talks because of their clout, the respect they command and ability to influence the decisions of policy makers in their respective countries.

While this is commendable and all part of a relatively new international focus of development as a political process that requires engagement with the political elite, supported by recent UK Department For International Development (DFID) research amongst others, it is simply unfair and unacceptable that former leaders with dismal records who rather than command respect are greeted with opprobrium in their home countries are the ones involved. This was a sore issue that was brought up in an Africa Gathering and Guardian Global Development joint Conference on Monday 20th June where one of the attendees, a young African passionately argued against engaging political leaders who are unpopular, infamous, lack any credibility among the youth and are therefore incapable of contributing anything meaningful to the progress of their respective countries. His argument was in response to the composition of an Africa Progress Panel which includes Obasanjo chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan with the objective  “to track and encourage progress in Africa, and to underscore shared responsibility between African leaders and their international partners for sustaining it”.

I believe most Nigerian youth and indeed African youth would prefer if people like Obasanjo who had all the opportunity, time and resources to make a fundamental difference in the lives of their citizens and the destinies of their countries, but didn’t, kept their highly duplicitous, half-hearted and unsolicited opinions to themselves and stop subjecting us the younger generation who will live with their mistakes and mal-decisions to international ridicule and embarrassment. For if Obasanjo truly cared about Nigeria, he would be giving constructive advice to the government of which he is an influential actor, rather than turning around and backstabbing it abroad. As for the international community, the youth fervently hope it would make greater efforts in engaging influential, respectable and enlightened Africans who can actually make a difference in our lives.