Nigerians Yawn Over Missing Billions By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe
On December 9 and 10, several websites and newspapers published a startling letter that Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had written to President Goodluck Jonathan. In the letter, Mr. Sanusi alerted the president that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) had failed to remit $49.8 billion in crude oil revenues into the federation account at the Central Bank.

The letter provoked verbal bedlam. The NNPC claimed that the country’s chief banker was ignorant on matters of oil earnings and remittances. It also accused Mr. Sanusi of Nigeria’s version of the capital sin: playing politics.

A week later, Mr. Sanusi appeared before the National Assembly along with Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Petroleum Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke. The three announced that their officials had been in marathon meetings to “reconcile” accounts. The Central Bank chief regretted his astonishing estimate of nearly $50 billion as missing remittances. The figure yet to be accounted for by the “reconcilers,” he announced, was $12 billion. Ms. Okonjo-Iweala interjected that the figure was $10.8 billion.

Nigerians, initially irate that somebody may have pocketed $50 billion, were exceedingly delighted to learn that they were out only $12 billion (according to Sanusi) or approximately $11 billion (by Okonjo-Iweala’s calculation). And since many—perhaps most—Nigerians don’t bother to get worked up over any sum smaller than $50 billion, there was a collective yawn throughout the country.

Some Nigerians heaped abuses on Mr. Sanusi for inflating the missing funds to $50 billion. What was the man up to? Perhaps, he sought to shock us into momentarily raising our faces from our piping hot bowls of goat meat pepper soup and chilled bottles of Star lager to pay attention. Perhaps he plotted to compel us, even if for a fleeting moment, to abandon our obsession with English and Euro soccer leagues long enough to carry placards in protest. No question, the banker was out to play with our minds, to mess up our routines, to ginger us into unfamiliar modes of reaction.

Forget the NNPC’s charge that Mr. Sanusi was Mr. Unpatriotic, politicking.

With his tenure at the Central Bank due to expire in May, 2014, perhaps the banker was simply rehearsing for a new role as a street dramatist. Perhaps his leaked letter represented an audacious attempt at a tragic production, with a cast of outraged Nigerians filling the streets with their rage, confronted by soldiers armed with the stoutest weaponry for crowd-pacification and a fanatical determination to defend the divine-favored looting class against any silly moves by the rude, wretched, demon-possessed masses.

At any rate, whatever were his designs, Mr. Sanusi failed woefully. He found out, in the most humiliating way, that Nigerians don’t even wake up for $12 billion. And when, according to the General Overseer of the Ministry of Finance, the missing or “unreconciled” funds amount to a mere $10.8 billion, forget it! It’s a mere fraction of what we permit our president, governors, legis-looters, ministers, commissioners, and sundry political aides to rake away in salaries and allowances as well as soirees in different foreign cities.

But seriously! Why are we so blest?

What combination of factors has rendered Nigerians this apathetic, this nonchalant, this indifferent to their degraded condition? In a space where most so-called citizens exist in animal-level states, a country with no healthcare to speak of, a vast toilet of a country where millions defecate in the open, where highways are accident traps, where all public universities were just shut down for five months, where electric power remains ever epileptic, where unemployment rates are so high nobody bothers anymore to keep tabs, where insecurity reigns and kidnappers rule, where prisons are chockfull with petty criminals (but with no election rigger or big-time embezzler in sight), where the minimum wage can hardly buy a goat, where trash is piled up on major city streets and burned—why is it that, in this veritable hell of an address on earth, Nigerians scoff at $11 billion? Why do we treat $12 billion as if it were chump change, a poor widow’s lunch budget? My prediction is that we’ve heard the last about the “unreconciled” 10 or so billion dollars.

Why, I wonder, have we gone back to sleep, gone back to quaffing our beer and savoring our pepper soups, because Mr. Sanusi had admitted that we’re missing not $50 billion but (a mere) $12 billion? Nigerians shout themselves hoarse over the fortunes or misfortunes of English Premier league football teams. But tell them that more than $10 billion has taken wings from their treasury and they push the snore button!

The whole NNPC financial fiasco raises several troubling questions. Mr. Sanusi’s letter to President Jonathan was dated September 25, 2013. From all accounts, Mr. Jonathan did nothing.

Perhaps he was too busy figuring out the 2015 jigsaw to ask questions about the astonishing letter. Mr. Jonathan did not set up a panel to investigate, did not report the matter to the National Assembly, did not summon Ms. Alison-Madueke (who oversees the NNPC) or Ms. Okonjo-Iweala (who coordinates Nigeria’s economy) to explain things to him. It was only after the CBN governor’s letter was leaked to the press—and drew national and international media attention—that a tripartite meeting was held to reconcile the record.

And what a “reconciliation”! While many reporters and commentators focused on Mr. Sanusi’s admission that his original figure of $50 billion was hugely inflated, they conveniently ignored the fact that the still “unreconciled” sum—whether it’s $10.8 billion or $12 billion—is a huge, huge deal. The collective yawn in the face of information that such princely sum was not accounted for speaks to a deep ethical malaise in Nigeria. In most other countries, rich as well as poor, missing funds as (relatively) low as $10 million would be regarded as a big deal, triggering a thorough scrutiny.

Not in Nigeria, a country where five or so civil servants were able to stash away more than $200 million from the police pension funds. And these civil servants have effectively got away with their illicit haul. Next stop for the pension fund looters: the governorship of some state, or—at minimum—a seat in the House of Reps or Senate!
Did Mr. Jonathan ever receive Mr. Sanusi’s letter. If he did, why did he not take action? If he didn’t, then has he sought to find out and fire those who conspired to keep such an explosive document from him?

Nigeria is a place where things that ought to be simple are complicated while things that should be complex are made simple. The language of the NNPC’s first reaction to the whole curious incident of the missing billions struck me as an exercise in obfuscation. The NNPC’s Group Managing Director, Andrew Yakubu, inveighed against Mr. Sanusi’s letter, characterizing it as “an attempt to ridicule NNPC staff and the management of NNPC.” Then he stated, “We will continue to keep our operations in high integrity and transparency and we are available at any point in time to reconcile numbers as we do in our operations.” Mr. Yakubu blamed the CBN governor’s letter on “a surprising lack of understanding of how revenues from crude oil sales are remitted into the Federation Account.”

That’s problematic. The remittance of crude oil earnings is Nigeria’s major source of revenue. Mr. Sanusi has headed the CBN for about four years.

Why would the CBN head suddenly become ignorant of how crude oil earnings are deposited at the bank?

Mr. Yakubu “explained” that “all NNPC crude oil liftings is made up of the following: Equity Crude, Royalty Oil, Tax Oil, Volume for Third Party Financing, and NPDC equity volume. It is important to stress that remittances of proceeds from the above liftings are made according to statutory and production arrangements.” And so on and so on and so on.

It’s mostly mumbo jumbo, to my ears. Here’s the bottom line: somebody who knows should tell us where those “unreconciled” billions are hiding.

Whether the amount is (Okonjo-Iweala’s) $10.8 billion or (Sanusi’s) $12 billion is of little import. It will take a lot of work, a lot of money, to turn Nigeria into a habitable address, to make the lives of Nigerians a little less dire and hellish. Yes, those “unreconciled” billions can make a big difference.

My new novel, Foreign Gods, Inc., will be published on January 14. Please follow me on twitter @okeyndibe

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