Why does it matter that the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, has indicated accounting sleights of hand at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC)? Or that shenanigans in and around Nigeria's proverbial golden egg-laying goose may be responsible for the federal budget's recent (and unprecedented) revenue haemorrhage?
Which is more important? The difference between US$48.9 billion (the original figure claimed by Mallam Sanusi as missing -- in his now contentious letter to the president), US$10.8 billion (the "mere" sum, which the Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala could not account for after a reconciliation of the relevant books), or US$12 billion (which the CBN governor claims is left over from the same "reconciliation"?)
Truth to tell, the spectre of poverty which now haunts just about every corner of our lived experience would not be diminished, nor scathed by any of these sums. The levels of output growth required to lift most of our compatriots off their borderline lives need far more (and deeper) reforms to the structure of our economy than much of the debate around the missing NNPC funds speak to.
Still, if newspaper reports are to be believed, someone in government is persuaded that these sums matter. Or that debate about them ought not to be ignored. Enough for certain arms of government to have put pressure on the Senate to deep freeze its planned public hearings into the matter.
Yet, we all cannot have forgotten so soon that one of the first resignations under the Jonathan administration was by a junior minister in the finance ministry, who had adverted the nation's attention to the possibility that the NNPC might be broke. Too broke, in fact, to then continue supporting the federal purse.
Evidently, therefore, the problems with the finances of the national oil company are not new ones. Indeed previous scandals surrounding the petroleum ministry, suggest that these problems have been with us for much longer. The sense that successive governments may have used the NNPC as a piggy bank is not helped by the super-budgetary nature of the agency's accounting.
Isn't it odd that the financial transactions of an agency of the state do not show up in the federal accounts? Instead, the federal government looks more like a beneficiary of the NNPC's acts of charitable giving. The corporation choosing to dispense largesse the federal government's way "as the spirit directs".
The demand for better governance and improved transparency recommend immediate reforms to the way the NNPC is run. It is hardly surprising that a super-state agency should choose to correct the prospect of continuing revenue losses from the production sharing contracts governing off-shore oil exploration through a root-and-branch review of existing oil laws, even when the production sharing contracts have clauses in them allowing review of the contract terms whenever conditions in the operating environment change.
The NNPC's failure to activate the review of the PSCs' terms until its Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is passed, even when we may be losing monies on the current terms of the contract is clearly subversive of the interests of the nation. The inefficiency of the current organisation of the oil industry is one properly told by the fortunes of the PIB.
The difficulty that we face around the structure and source of federally-collectible revenue is more profound than this, though. On the strength of publicly available government numbers in the years 2010 to 2013, the average price of crude oil (the nation's main revenue earner, and responsible for slightly under 20% of annual output) on the international markets was US$79.76, US$113.15, US$112.72, and US$110.8 per barrel respectively.
Over the same period, domestic oil production was 2.44 million barrels per day (mbd), 2.46mbd, 2.34mbd, and 2.23mbd respectively. However, the numbers for official earnings from this source tell a different tale. Total crude oil revenue rose from N5.39tn in 2010 to N8.84tn in 2011, before falling from N8.02tn in 2012 to N6.89tn last year. Until 2012, on this evidence, the trajectory for oil price, domestic oil production, and total crude oil revenue were in sync. Last year, a gap, almost N2tn wide opens up in the revenue numbers.
Whether you believe the "conspiracy theorists" who argue that these sums have been squirreled away in advance of the 2015 general elections, or those who blame a lack of transparency (and who knows, may be dollops of incompetence) in the preparation of the official numbers for the shameful discrepancies in the official numbers, it is increasingly difficult to argue against the need for drastic change in the national accounting for the oil sector.