The governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, said over the weekend that the huge vested interest of economic and political officeholders has been the major barrier to Nigeria realising its huge economic potential.
Speaking on the topic "Overcoming the fear of vested interest" on an occasion organised by a group of youth under the aegis of TEDx in Abuja, Sanusi said that, in 1960, Nigeria was the preferred investment destination with per capita income higher than that of countries like Japan and South Korea.
However, over 53 years later, he said, Nigeria which has always had potential is still not able to realise that potential when countries like China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Brazil have since turned the potential that they had into reality.
"In four years or so that I have been in Abuja, I have come to understand that we need to overcome the power of vested interest. And I will talk with you a little bit about my own experiences at the Central Bank and use that as a basis or template for what I think we need to do if we must change this country," Sanusi said.
Since the discovery of oil, the Nigerian state has been exploited to serve the vested interest of the rich minority at the expense of the poor majority, he noted.
The CBN governor highlighted some instances where vested interest took precedence over public interest in the country in the banking sector, petroleum subsidy scandals, among others, and urged the youth to use these as examples of what they can do if they want to confront these vested interests and deal with them and protect the poor people of this country.
"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 to serve a tiny minority in the country's political power. And it doesn't matter where this group comes from - whether it is north or south or Muslim or Christian or military or civilian. The state has always been a site for rent seeking with the exception of a few years when we have had development. And this is at the heart of the problems of the country," he stated.
He spoke on the Nigerian paradox: "A country that specialises in exporting what it does not produce and importing what it produces; one of the world's largest producers of crude oil that does not refine petroleum products but imports refined petroleum products; the world's largest producer of cassava that does not produce starch or ethanol. Large tomato belt yet the world's largest importer of tomato paste. A country that from my childhood I have heard had the potential of being a world power but every day we talk about potential. Today, we still talk about the potential of Nigeria and yet China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Brazil, all of these countries have turned the potential that they had into reality. What is the one thing that we need to do to break this barrier that faces us?"
On his experience: "Shortly after I came in and when we conducted investigations, I discovered that the Nigerian banking system was infested with the same corruption of the entire system in the country: that a number of bank chief executives had taken their banks and fleeced them of depositors' money to buy property all over the world. And just like people do in ministries, in government agencies, or whenever they have the opportunity in oil companies, the banks were themselves a site for rent seeking.
"There was one chief executive officer that took away from her bank over N200 billion, and where was this money taken? Purchase of properties. We recovered from one CEO 200 pieces of real estate in Dubai, real estate in Johannesburg, in the United States of America, apart from shares in over 100 companies and all of that was purchased with depositors' money.
"For another CEO we got a judgment against that CEO for N142 billion stolen from the bank taken to buy shares and manipulate the shares of his own institution, and also transferred outside to purchase properties.
"Now, the first CEO we were able to convict, we recovered these assets and got a six months' sentence and sorted it out. The second CEO, we finished our case established in Nigeria that we have a case in Nigeria, in the UK; two weeks before the closing statements were made the judge was miraculously promoted to the Federal Court of Appeal after three years of trial -- at the very end of trial -- because someone, a very popular religious leader with hundreds of thousands of supporters, carried him to the political authorities and the system that was supposed to protect depositors and handle criminals was used and manipulated to promote a judge so that he would not convict a thief. Now, this is an example of the kinds of things that happen in the country that prevent it from realising its full potential.
"Now, to my experience with the banking reforms, I observed the following: After the discovery of the things that happened in the banks, the most important thing was to take a critical decision that would pit us against powerful political and economic forces. We were dealing with chief executives that, in 2009, had become invincible. They were in the seat of power; they had economic power and had bought political protection. They were into political parties, they had financed elections of officers and they believed that nobody could touch them. And every time I said it was time to take action people said to me, 'You can't touch those people; you will be sacked'. Or, 'You can't touch these people; they will kill you'. And I said, you know what, we are going to take them on.
"And we took a decision to remove them, and, you know what, we removed them and nothing happened. We were going to prosecute them, put them in jail, and we put one of them in jail. We were going to recover these assets because the way the Central Bank operated in the past was such that these guys took all the money and the Central Bank said the banks have failed. The banks that we saved had N4.4 trillion in deposits. They had 8 to 10 million customers. But the government and the system had always betted on the side of the rich people. These 8 million customers -- the old woman in Gboko or Yenagoa or Maiduguri who has struggled to save money for 40 to 50 years -- and you wake up one day to say that the bank has failed and the money is gone. The man with his pension money in the bank, his children's school fees, the medical bills, and you wake one day to say the bank has failed.
"When people say a bank failed, it is like seeing a man whose throat was slit and you say the man died; he didn't die, he was killed. And those that murdered the banks have always walked free - they become senators and governors, they become captains of industry, they sit on the boards of banks and continue to be relevant in the system. Against millions of Nigerians who don't have a voice.
"Nobody knows the number of people who have died as a result of failed banks. Because they were sick and could not pay the hospital bills, because their money was locked up in banks that had failed. Nobody knows the number of children whose parents could well afford to pay their school fees but they dropped out of schools because banks were mismanaged. Use these as examples of what you can do if you want to confront these vested interests and deal with them and protect the poor people of this country. But the banking industry is one sector in Nigeria; what is happening in other sectors?
"Take the oil industry: in 2009 this country paid N291 billion subsidy for petroleum products. By 2011, this number had jumped to N2.7 trillion. Did we start consuming 10 times the level of petrol? Did we have 10 times the number of cars? Did the population of Nigeria multiply 10 times? I do not believe these numbers. I screamed against these numbers and other people screamed and there have been investigations, and it was discovered that a lot of that money never went into fuel subsidy that was consumed by Nigerians. But people in this country had produced pieces of paper and gone to PPPRA and they stamped those papers claiming that they brought in petroleum products and actually paid them subsidy. And those pieces of paper said I brought 40,000 metric tonnes of petroleum product on so and so ship, and we discovered that that ship was nowhere near the shores of this country on the dates indicated."