By Libby Leyden-Sussler
Though his role is vital, the whistleblower usually pays a hefty price for his admission.
Such is the case of Lamido Sanusi, former governor of Nigeria’s central bank. Last month, Sanusi alleged that $49.8 billion in oil revenue had somehow “gone missing,” sending shockwaves through Nigeria. He wrote to the president alleging that the National Petroleum Corporation, (NNPC) failed to send the billions to the Federation Account.
Sanusi, in his role as governor of the central bank, asked all of the country’s top bankers to open their bank accounts to find the source of the missing money. While oil corruption schemes are not uncommon, especially in a country that is one of Africa’s largest economies, an accusation of this magnitude has never been made before by as high a government official.
But with the branding of whistleblower, there also comes the unavoidable blowback, the consequences for raising questions that contest a higher authority. In Sanusi’s case, this led to President Goodluck Jonathan’s dismissal of him on February 20. In interviews with The New York Times, Sanusi said his warnings to bankers had been reported directly back to the threatened seat of power in Abuja.
“Sanusi's position from inception was that of water in oil, effectively being used as a tokenistic veneer of legitimacy for the media, foreign governments etc.,” says Khadija Sharife, an investigative journalist and researcher on financial opacity and extractive industries “When he collided with power in unacceptable ways – such as challenging the validity of systems, he was invented as an enemy.”
The headquarters of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company
This was not the first time Sanusi has raised questions about Nigeria’s growing corruption problem. In 2009, Sanusi was appointed by former president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Upon assuming the role, he attempted to take on Nigeria’s declining banking sector. He took action to permanently close fraudulent banks, uncover theft, and all the while gain the trust of international markets. Dubbed the “Sanusi Tsunami,” some believed he had a personal vendetta against some of the bank CEOs, while other analysts pointed to proof of mismanagement of funds on the part of the bankers.
In early 2010, Sanusi conceded that since 2005 the Central Bank had failed to conduct routine examinations of the 14 banks allocated to it under the sharing arrangement with the Nigerian Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC). He also went on to describe an outline for reform built around four core pillars: enhance the quality of banks, establish financial stability, enable a healthy financial sector evolution, and ensure the financial sector contributes to the economy.
Yet somehow this highly praised and progressive man is now without his title and left to deal with the blowback of rattling the cages on an oil-politics system riddled with exploitation. Nigeria’s current political power, in preparation for a 2015 election, is focusing on footing the bill to keep the governing party functioning. Sanusi’s accusations threatened to expose, as his suspicions impluy, that some bankers were in fact laundering stolen oil money and sending it directly into the bank accounts of those in the capital. The bankers refused to cooperate or offer any real response, indicating there may be some truth in Sanusi’s accusations. A spokesman for Nigerian’s president simply replied that these findings were “untrue.”
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that Sanusi will regain his position. Though his term was set to end in June, there is a larger issue at play—the role of the “ public watchdog,” who keeps governments, large corporations, and industries honest. When civil servants, such as Sanusi, speak out against corruption, and are “chastised” by their home country, citizens grow wary of voicing a dissenting opinion for fear of retribution. Freedom of speech, then, comes at too high a cost.
Libby Leyden-Sussler is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.