16 February 2014

Nigeria: The $20 Billion That Would Not Go Away

At last the Federal government has committed to hiring independent Forensic Auditors to verify, and get to the roots of the persistent allegation of a missing $20 billion from the oil accounts. This move was announced on Thursday by Finance Minister and the Federal government's Chief Treasurer, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at a press briefing following her appearance before the senate's Finance Committee which had commenced investigations into the alleged missing funds. There has been a back-and forth between Dr. Okonjo-Iweala andMr. Sanusi Lamido, the nation's two top fiscal managers on the question of the gap in the NNPC's accounting of the oil revenue, and it has thus far been a civil and respectful exchange between the two top managers of Nigeria's public finance who have basically agreed to disagree on this matter.

CBN Governor Lamido has persisted in his own account of an unreconciled $20 billion that should accrue to the Federal government from sales of oil, but which by his own records have not be remitted to the federation account. Mr. Lamido has stated that CBN records indicate that national oil receipts available to the CBN show that the NNPC sold $67.8 Billion worth of crude in the past year with only $47.8 billion remitted to the federation account. The shortfall of $20 billion has been the subject of contention. On the other hand, the Finance Minister, speaking for the federal government, the NNPC and the Oil Ministry, has persisted in their own defence, that no such thing as $20 billion is missing. Basically, that the gap is all a figment of the imagination of the CBN governor. Clear attempts have been made to politicize the CBN governor's narrative and place upon it the integrity factor. Some have said that Lamido's knowledge of accounting is rotten; some have said that he is merely bloviating to get on the nerves of the president and the ruling PDP because he has eyes on higher office via the new APC. But what has become clear is that this is a $20 billion worth story that will not go away. Indeed it should not because, aside from the fact that $20 billion is no mere chump change, there is the fundamental question of how Nigeria's national revenue account is managed.

This would not be the first time allegations of huge withdrawals and disappearances have happened in Nigeria's oil accounts; huge monies that have disappeared in black holes and never to be seen again, except in the hints of private accounts in Switzerland, the Caymans, and such tax havens. What Sanusi's crusade, if indeed it turns out to be a true crusade and not a hatchet job will do is to open very wide, the nature of this black hole and the dark matter that resides therein. I must say that I personally took a skeptical view of Sanusi Lamido's challenge initially, at that point when Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, about three weeks ago came to clarify the situation of the accounts and provide its traces. I think that the initial scepticism was largely because the specifics of the CBN Governor's narrative were lost in mediaspeak. It did seem for a while that Sanusi Lamido claimed that $67.8 billion had gone missing.

The finance minister's rebuttal which located and placed the money in context seemed like a credible and reassuring rebuttal. It did seem like the CBN Governor did not have his facts, and was uncertain about what was missing from the accounts. Was it $67.8 billion or was it $20 billion? In any case, if this $20 billion is missing from oil revenue in the last year alone, what about the accounts of the last five years since he has been Governor of the Central Bank? He seemed inconsistent. But as we continue to listen and learn from the parties involved in this unfolding drama, one thing is certain: the NNPC account is a doggone mess.

Okonjo-Iweala herself acknowledged this at Thursday's Press briefing: "The oil account is a very complex business," she said. "For example, oil is lifted to pay back what is called "carry arrangement " in which oil is supplied for loans taken by NNPC in the past and is to be paid back in crude oil to those creditors who gave NNPC those loans. So when you look at it, someone can say there is a missing x number of barrels which should have been accounted for.

But it is used in paying for debt owed by the NNPC. That is why we are asking for forensic audit so that we can have all these things clearly verified. You can't just look at the balance of payment numbers - you will not get it right. Those are some of the reasons why we said it is a complex issue. Let us get the experts into this and let them give account to Nigerians." This is startling. What the Finance Minister simply is saying is that Nigeria's oil account is a primitive system that is bound to yield primitive and inconsistent results. The labyrinth has been in-built to create all kinds of diversions, and within those diversions, all kinds of leakages which has made the NNPC one of the most corrupt institutions in Nigeria's bureaucracy. It has been called "a government inside a government." But its day must come, and we must put an end to the massive looting of Nigeria's national revenue. If the Sanusi challenge must accomplish anything, this is it. So far, officials of the NNPC have failed to give a convincing account about the revenue gap of $20 billion that ought to come into the federation account.

The Minister for oil, Mrs. Diezeani-Madueke and the NNPC MD, Mr. Andrew Yakubu have at separate moments tried to fob off the question by insisting that the alleged $20 billion has even in part been applied to kerosene subsidies. This is Sanusi Lamido's challenge: there may yet be no monies missing as might be revealed by the so-called "Forensic" accountants, but there is a great urgency to clean-up Nigeria's oil business and its accounting procedures and management. The NNPC must operate within the framework of its role as established by law. It is also heartwarming in one particular sense: Lamido Sanusi's principled and defiant stance is evidence that we are beginning to rebuild the institutional systems that check governments and help keep their noses clean. We may yet thank Mr. Sanusi Lamido for this, irrespective of the outcome of the senate investigations and the forensic examination of the Nigerian oil accounts.

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