The suspended Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mallam Lamido Sanusi, is in the eye of the storm for what many see as his outspokenness and controversial position on critical national issues, especially his revelation about unremitted funds to the Federation Account by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Shortly before his suspension by the President, he spoke to Metropole magazine. Excerpts
You openly said you were not interested in being reappointed as the governor of CBN. Why?
We are all prisoners of our history and certain people and certain events in our lives tend to shape how we approach life. My father was a career diplomat and in 1975, General Murtala Mohammed appointed him as Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His first request was that he would be allowed to leave in two years. Unfortunately, General Murtala Mohammed died after six months and he had to stay for another year; and so, he spent about three years.
What I remember most about my father is that even though he was permanent secretary for only three years, he was proud that those three years were the golden years of Nigeria’s foreign policy. This was the time of the independence of Mozambique, the independence of Angola and the time we had a clear focus on the decolonisation of Africa. As the chief executive of the ministry at that time, he took great pride in being the architect of that transformation in foreign policy. Until his death, he always said ‘it is not how long you stay in a place, but what you actually achieve.’
So, I have always counted my term in terms of what I am able to achieve. If I really felt there were major things I had intended to achieve and which I had not completed in five years I would see a justification for continuing. But the reality was I was only appointed governor of the CBN because the late president felt that given my risk management background and my nature I could help fix the crisis in the banking and financial system. Inflation was about 15.6%, the exchange rate was all over the place, banks were about to collapse, reserves were crashing and they wanted somebody to produce stability.
So, for me, it was always clear that if I succeeded in restoring stability, fixing the banks, bringing down inflation, building up reserves, I would have, principally, completed the tasks. If peradventure I did other things like development finance, financial inclusion, mobile banking and so on, that would be like a bonus. To be honest with you, I actually told President Jonathan I would not seek a second term since 2011. I told him privately that I did not think I would want a second term and I would advise him to start thinking of a successor. I recall he was surprised because it was so far from the expiration of my tenure but I told him very clearly and I repeated it several times on several occasions to him. Unless he did not believe what I was telling him, it is hoped that he would by now have had enough time to decide on the succession plan.
There are two interpretations out there: one, this is not an elective position and so saying you don’t want a second term is not really your call; two, that your move might be pre-emptive, knowing they were not going to reappoint you anyway…
Well, people will always read meanings into what you do. We have seen enough to know what to do to get a second term. All you have to do is be nice to people, prove your loyalty, and do the lobbying. We have had people who get appointments and they are there for donkey years, and they don’t do anything other than just show loyalty. So if it was something I wanted, there are ways of going about it.
Secondly, if you assume that the system works properly, the natural thing is that if you have done a job very well you will be offered a second term. But there is no point having such offer and you then say you don’t want it. I personally don’t think I need 10 years on this job. My nature and character is more suited to fixing problems and I would be very bored if I were to just sit down and preside. But people will always say all sorts of things.
I have heard that I want to go into politics; I have heard that I don’t have a good relationship with the government etc. But like I said earlier, I made my intentions known about three years ago and so it wasn’t just about now.
Given what you know now, what would you have done differently as CBN governor?
It’s very easy to look back over a five-year period and start saying ‘why did I make a mistake or what would I have done differently’. Ultimately for me, given the fact that we have achieved everything we were supposed to achieve and I am very happy with the result, maybe the question should be if I had done things differently would I have achieved those results? I don’t know. To the extent that what I did delivered the result I should say that I cannot separate how I did it from what I did.
For example, could we have fixed the banks without removing the CEOs? Could we have regained the confidence of the market without arresting those people and showing that they would face the law? Could we have protected depositors without the huge funds that AMCON came with? I don’t think so. Could we have had some of the improvements in governance like the whole controversy surrounding the NNPC? Could we have got NNPC to begin to accept that they are not repatriating money and begin to offer some accounts? Remember that for years, anytime anybody raised an issue with NNPC they just dismissed it. They did not feel they had an obligation to even explain anything. Could we have got them to begin to explain so that we can now interrogate their explanation without some of the unpleasantness that has come up?
There was only one thing that I had hoped at the beginning I would achieve which I believed I have not achieved. And this is what saddens me a bit even though it is also the circumstances. A central bank should, as much as possible, be out of the front pages of newspapers. Apart from on monetary policy days when you announce your rates, you should just work behind the scene. I think we couldn’t get the CBN out of the news because of the profile of the central bank after consolidation and the fact that I came in the middle of a crisis. It was very difficult from the early stage to move away from the front pages. I think that after we had set up AMCON I should have taken that opportunity to pull the bank away from the front pages.
Also, I think not being politically sensitive was a problem. I am not saying the CBN governor should be a politician. But just understanding the politics of communication in Abuja was something maybe I could have done better.
The banking reform, which is like your signature intervention, threw up a lot of controversies. Some took issues with your approach and some accused you of sectional and religious bias. Looking back, do you think that you did the right thing and in the right way?
I have never understood what this sectional and religious interest is. If a bank CEO steals money from depositors and purchases property in Dubai and I remove her for criminal theft and you say it’s a religious agenda. Are you saying stealing is a Christian thing? I don’t understand that. In what way is that a religious agenda? Are you saying that stealing depositors fund is a southern thing and therefore it’s a northern agenda to say it should not be done? The shareholders of these banks come from all over the country and these banks have branches all over Nigeria and depositors all over the country. But if the CEO is from the South and a Christian, you probably find out that maybe 70 per cent of the deposits also belong to people from the same part of the country. So, who am I protecting? I don’t care where the CEO is from. The bottom line is who is being protected?
So, my agenda was very clear and if there was any bias in everything that I have done it is the following: before I became governor of the central bank, previous governors were believers in what is called the ‘destructive creation and progress of capitalism.’ Say if you have a bank and it’s mismanaged and the bank collapses that’s fine. You hand it over to the NDIC. If you put your money in the bank, it is your business. NDIC will give you say N200,000 regardless of the millions you have in that bank, and that’s it. If you have kept your entire life savings in the bank, that’s your business. That was how the CBN used to operate; and then, the bank MD and CEO would appear in another bank as ED or MD, or they would take the money and set up another bank or they would move to another line of business and become captains of industries.
Those who borrowed money and refused to pay just move to the next bank and borrow more and continue with their business.
I recall that when we published the names of the debtors, it was a list of the who-is-who in Nigeria. It changed behaviour. People started realising that all these people moving around with their private jets were not rich, that they had taken depositors monies and promised to pay back and instead of paying back they were buying private jets. Of course they didn’t like that and they mounted an attack that it was sectional, it was religious and that I didn’t know what I was doing and that I was going to bring down the system. But the system was already down.
Was the system really going to collapse?
There was no way that system was going to survive. Look at how much AMCON had to put in. In Intercontinental Bank alone, there was a hole of N550bn. Who was going to put that in? A negative capital of such amount is depositors’ fund of N550bn that would never come back. It had been taken in the form of bad loans, huge losses, stolen money, false profits declared in previous years, bubble capital because they had taken depositors funds to buy their own shares to play the market. They took money to buy their own shares, and when the price fell, who would take the hit? The depositors. The deposits were gone and the market had crashed by 70 per cent. The capital was wiped out and depositors’ funds were wiped out. So the system had collapsed.
You assumed office in June 2009 and you started the banking reform in August of the same year. That was barely two months. It seemed you had a preconceived agenda…
Yes, I had an agenda, but it was not sinister. You must remember that I built my reputation in the industry as a chief risk officer in United Bank for Africa and First Bank. That was what I was known for in the industry and that was the reason I think I was selected to be governor of CBN. As chief risk officer in First Bank, I had a very good idea of which banks had problems because it was my job to know. I didn’t know the exact details and how much was involved, but I knew the ones that had problems. For example, you looked at the banks that were paying a high rate of interest for deposits. You looked at the banks that panicked when a customer was going to withdraw N50m or N100m. You looked at the banks that were permanently at the Central Bank’s expanded discount window. You looked at the banks that had a very high loan-to-deposit ratio but who did not seem to be key players in low risk segments. So we knew.
My first meeting with the late President Umaru Yar’Adua was in February 2009 and I was told that I was being considered for possible appointment as the governor of the CBN. I had not been told I was selected. But I had three months’ notice. I never go for a job unprepared. So, I used those three months to study financial crisis resolution in different parts of the world. I studied the US savings and loans crisis, I studied the Turkish financial crisis, I studied the Asian financial crisis, and I monitored what Ireland was doing with its assets management crisis.
I was lucky I had a very good friend called Dr. Sophie Hague, who was then working for the British High Commission and who had done her doctorate on the Asian financial crisis. She gave me her PhD thesis and other supporting papers and I would fly to Abuja on a Saturday and sit down with her for two, three hours effectively taking tutorials and asking questions. By the time I walked into the Central Bank, I had concluded that the response of Malaysia to the financial crisis was the most effective: change the management, recapitalise the banks, set up institutions that will buy up the toxic assets and put in capital. By the time I walked into the Central Bank, I was intellectually prepared and I knew exactly what needed to be done.
Since the people you took on were politically connected, how did you manage the political backlash?
When after examinations we discovered what the banks had done, I went to President Yar’Adua. I laid before him two options. I told him he had the option of doing what other presidents before him had done, that is to close the banks, and hand them over to the NDIC. But this was the value of depositors’ money at risk and this was the number of Nigerians that would lose their investments. And the other was that you could do something different. You could give me the authority to protect these depositors and that was going to cost money and some of that cost might come back later to the public purse. And if that option was taken, we would have to go after the people who had run these banks down because politically there was no way of justifying this cost if these guys got away with it.
He said he wanted the second option. I told him these people were connected politically and if I moved against them, you would have generals, traditional rulers, party leaders come and talk to you. He said, ‘Sanusi, I give you my word no matter the pressure I will not stop you’. I said thank you sir. As I was leaving, he called me back and said ‘are you going to do this alone? Don’t you need help from any government agency?’ I said I needed only three agencies: the EFCC because we would have to prosecute people; the police, for protection; and the SSS to make sure that these guys would not run out of the country. And he said, ‘Sit down.’ He picked up the phone and asked them to call the heads of those three agencies. One after the other, they all came and he said to each of them, ‘Do you know this gentleman?’ They said, ‘yes’. He said, ‘He is going to go through a very difficult national assignment and I am giving you directives to give him all the support that he needs.’ And that was how we were able to achieve what we achieved.
Until he died, even when his family bank, Bank PHB, was involved and his mother was pressurising him, he never interfered. When they convinced him to call me on Bank PHB, the people that arranged the meeting were shocked because when we sat down at the meeting his opening words were, ‘Sanusi, what you have done has given this country a good name and you must not stop. You have already taken over a number of banks in the first round and you must treat every bank in exactly the same way.’ Meanwhile, they had been going round saying I was not being considerate, that it was the President’s family bank and he also had shares in the bank as a director. So when he said what he said, it put an end to it. Up till that point they had assured the MD of Bank PHB that nothing would happen to him and that the President was going to stop me. But that was the extent of the political support that we had that allowed us to achieve what we achieved.
Now, would there be a backlash? The answer is yes. The backlash has started and it’s not even here yet. I will see the backlash when I leave office. So long as you are in office there is protection. You will see everything from newspaper articles to false allegations to attempts at having you in the hands of EFCC, more like ‘we must also do to him what he did to us.’ It is to be expected. But it is precisely the fear of political backlash that has stopped action in this country.
You have drawn a lot of flak for donations by the CBN under your watch. What is the rationale for these donations?
When I came in, one of the things I discovered was that education was an area where we have had a lot of investments at the bank. Since this process was on and I liked it, I talked to the board of the bank and they agreed that this is something that we should continue doing. They are largely interventions in educational institutions aimed at filling major gaps in infrastructure. We have tried to see if we can focus the schools on producing very high-quality personnel for the banking industry and finance-related areas. So, most of those centres of excellence are really for MBAs, MSc Finance and so on. They are supposed to produce high-quality personnel for the financial sector and give them the very best training.
If you don’t invest in human capital, the system will collapse. The graduates that come out and go to the banking industry will not have the ability to run the banks. Those that we employ as regulators will not have the skills to regulate. We don’t have the capacity in Nigerian universities to produce the kind of personnel that this industry wants. So at the level of the centres of excellence, the investments are aimed at contributing to the flow of human capital.
Now, if we don’t make the money, we won’t do it; and if we do make money and the board approves, we do it. What I have not understood in the criticism is the following: is it that it is wrong to intervene in education? Or is it wrong for the CBN to do it? I still have not understood what the criticism is all about.
Well the criticism is that CBN under you became a Father Christmas, dishing out money to all kind of things that are not related to your core mandate.
In 2002, there was a bomb blast in Ikeja, Lagos. The CBN Governor then was Joseph Sanusi and the CBN gave N10m. What is the difference between giving bomb blast victims N10m in Lagos and giving N100m to bomb blast victims in Kano or N25m to bomb blast victims in Madalla? I didn’t start it. It is a tradition of the bank. How is that Father Christmas? What is wrong with the board of the Central Bank approving if the bank is making huge profits? What is wrong with the CBN contributing to relief for humanitarian disasters? What is wrong with the CBN getting banks together and contributing to flood disaster relief?
We put in about N500m when the flood disaster hit the country. We got the banks to put in money and we gave the money to the relief body set up by the President. Most of the victims of the Boko Haram bombings in Kano were not Kano indigenes. If you see the list, 70 per cent of the people the governor of Kano State gave the money to were from the South. They were SSS officers and police officers whose barracks were bombed. They were people from all over Nigeria. The bulk of them were neither Muslims nor from Kano and the list was published.
What about the conference centre? Should the CBN be involved in things like that?
What is a central bank and who says the central bank should not be involved in these activities? On the basis of whose rule? How did this conference centre start? We all go out to Washington, Istanbul, Cape Town and other places for meetings and conferences of the World Bank and IMF etc. Let me give you an example. When I just became the CBN governor, there was a meeting of West African central bank governors and it was held at the Transcorp Hilton. But go to the Bank of Sudan and they have beautiful conference rooms. So when they were going to have the D8 meeting of central bank governors I said we needed to build a conference room in the central bank that will host the central bank governors and that is where we have our Monetary Policy Committee meetings now. We got Julius Berger to do it. We designed a roundtable with five cabins for simultaneous translation with video conferencing facility, with TV coverage facilities. Today, if the IMF and World Bank say they are coming to Africa, Nigeria cannot even offer to host it. This year, Nigeria is hosting the World Economic Forum Africa and a lot of it is going to happen at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel.
What about our International Conference Centre, can it not serve this purpose?
Have you seen it? Let’s be honest. Is that where you would like to bring the World Bank and the IMF? Anyway, I went to the President and I said this is a problem and the central bank will like to build something for Nigeria. I remember him saying that he had just come back from Equatorial Guinea where they had an event in a beautiful conference centre and that we don’t have anything like that in Nigeria. He said fine, go ahead.
We found a location that was ideal where we could build a conference centre, allow private investors to come and build a five-star hotel and a three-star hotel. The location also happens to be on the design of the Abuja monorail train stop. So just like in Johannesburg, you can fly into Nigeria and take a train from Abuja airport to the centre, go into your hotel, and go for your conference. When you finish, get on the train and back to the airport and fly out. It is something that is a legacy for Nigeria. When it is done in six or seven years people will come and say somebody had the foresight to build something like this for our country.
The conference centre is not mine; it’s not even for the central bank; it is for Nigeria. It is something I am going to be very happy I conceived. So, for people who think I have given a contract and disbursed money, we haven’t even disbursed money apart from what was disbursed to clear the land and demolish existing structures.
There is a recent allegation that you have constituted yourself into a parallel government, getting into areas that restrict the flow of cash into the economy and without reference to the managers of the economy?
What does that mean and who are the managers of the economy? Was there any substance to the allegations by the senator? What did he say? Have I spent any money in a manner that is not in line with the CBN Act? Have I taken a single kobo from the Federation Account? The CBN does not take money from the Consolidated Revenue Fund; rather we put in money. In the last four years, the CBN has put in N217bn into the federal budget. In 2012 alone, we gave the Federal Government N80bn. The previous year, we had given over N60bn. In 2008, the year before I became the governor, what the CBN put in was N8bn. If you take the entire Federal Government ministries, departments and agencies, the CBN has put in 75 per cent of the total contributions to the budget in the last four years. How can anybody criticise the CBN on budget? The facts are there.
Your tenure will also be remembered for so many controversies. Why are you so controversial?
I think we should just ask ourselves whether we are happy with our system. I mean before I became governor and to the best of my knowledge till now, people keep complaining about the Nigerian system. They complain about the situation where we are spending so much money on recurrent expenditure; they complain about lack of adequate healthcare; they complain about how much we spend on fuel subsidy, etc. The best way not to be controversial is to come and be part of that system and just be quiet, see and hear and say nothing and leave. I am not controversial. I am just, for me, being myself, expressing the same views about the system that I expressed outside it. Am I perfect? No. Do I have faults? Yes. But do I think that for every day I am in public office I have the responsibility to use my position as a platform to help and improve the system? Yes I do. In that process do I annoy some people? Yes.
Is there an underlining philosophy to your approach to public work?
There is an underlining philosophy to my approach to life, which is that I believe we should speak truth to power. Power by its nature, when offended, can destroy an individual. For that reason, a few people speak. But no society changes until people are able to speak truth to power.
Speak truth to power even from inside?
You have stepped on very powerful toes, including possibly the President’s and in three to four months, you will be out of this place. Are you ready for the possible backlash?
It will come and we will take life as it goes. For me, it’s never really a big deal. First of all, there is nothing in life that is very important to me. So I do not have any fear of loss. I have never lacked anything but that doesn’t mean I am obsessed with anything. If anybody wants to put me in prison I have always said just tell me what prison to go to and I would drive myself there, and pay my own transport fare there and I can maintain myself there in the period that you have set out for me. And I will come out. It’s just a location.
This is not about the President because sometimes when I sit with the President I don’t think he really has a personal problem with me. But you know it is power we are talking about and there are people around power who continue to say things and continue to cause difficulties. In all of these things I have never mentioned the President even in the current controversy concerning the NNPC. I wrote him a letter asking him to investigate and in the letter I was very clear that I did not think he was aware of what was happening. So, if anybody takes that as an attack on the president, that’s them and it’s not me.
Is it true that the President asked you to resign and you said no?
Yes he did. He asked me to resign and I did indicate that I did not see a basis for it because the allegation was that I had handed a letter that I wrote to him to former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Governor Rotimi Amaechi, and I did not.
And you think we can live in a Third World country and a President tells you to resign and you tell him no and there would not be consequences?
I don’t know about consequences. I am still in my job and I think it’s really up to the President to decide whether he is going to respect the law and understand the issues and let it go or if he is going to deal with me. I can’t prejudge what anybody is going to do and I can’t take responsibility for what anybody decides.
It is believed that you did this letter as a form of insurance, that you knew they were going to come after you possibly for some things you had done and you wanted a victim narrative, a way of saying ‘they are coming after me just because of what I said’…
You can never have any insurance in life. What is insurance? The only insurance you have in life is to try to do the right thing.
And anything that comes your way you are ready for it?
I have always been prepared for whatever comes.
All things being equal, you are leaving by end of May this year. What is next for you?
My immediate plan is that I am going to France to strengthen my French. I have a visiting professorship from the University of Bordeaux; I also have an offer to study Mandarin, which I will probably take. When I come back, I am thinking of either doing some farming which will help me make money while creating jobs for people. I will also like to have a think tank that deals with public policy in Africa.
Are you interested in Politics?
Are you getting ready for Kano?