Tuesday 24 January 2012

An Evening With Lamido Sanusi

He was crisp, the kind of man you can imagine refused to wear rumpled clothes to school when he was a child. Slight of frame, he walked in with a shrinking gait, head down but once he stood behind the podium he grew more comfortable. His speech was clipped, almost British in cadence. He started off with a self deprecating joke. "I've been told that this is the closest I will ever get to a Nobel lecture," he said, clutching the podium. So this is the Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, I thought as I settled down in my seat.

His talk was titled 'The Global Banking Crisis: an African Banker's Response' and  even though at times he retreated into an obscure financial lexis of mutual funds, recapitalisation and long term financing, I could generally follow the gist of what he was saying.

In 2007-2008 when the first round of the global crisis hit, Nigeria was spared the impact because in many ways, our financial market is isolated from the big deals. In the second wave of 2009, Nigeria took a hit. Oil prices crashed from $147 a barrel in 2007 to $47 a barrel in 2009 and our crude oil based economy took a plunge. According to Sanusi, in 2007 the Nigerian stock exchange was one of the best performing in the world. By 2009 we were one of the worst performing. It was in this same year that Sanusi became Central Bank Governor. He was too modest to say that since his advent the banking industry in Nigeria has changed for the better but this can be inferred from what he told us next.

With banks about to collapse, the Central Bank stepped in. The industry was a mess. Banks were lending people's savings to speculators and petroleum marketers who rarely repaid their loans. Some banks owned 25% of themselves and traded in their own stock. Sanusi spoke of the 'biggest fool theory' where someone who bought a share for $10, sold it off to a bigger fool for $12 who sold it off to an even bigger fool for $15 who after some wrangling sold it to the biggest fool for $20. At which point the biggest fool realised nobody would buy it from him for higher than $20 and the value of his stock plummeted.

Sanusi spoke of a culture of failing banks in Nigeria where C.E.Os would run their banks aground with poor management, the government would take over and these C.E.Os would go and build houses abroad, come back to Nigeria and become senators and governors. In Sanusi's words, "Banks don't fail. They are cured. We were going to save the banks and find the people who killed the banks." On further inspection, after the Central government had taken over some of these  banks on the verge of extinction, it was discovered that it wasn't just poor management that had killed these banks but blatant fraud. Lenders and borrowers were the same people. Money had been taken out of the bank to buy real estate abroad. In one case, 200 pieces of Dubai real estate were found to be owned by a C.E.O.

What followed was a process of carrot and bulala from the C.B.N. Every bank CEO who had been in office for ten years was forced to leave. Most had become entrenched, too powerful for their boards or workers to resist their schemes, whether legitimate or illegitimate. Non-executive directors who had been sitting on a board for over twelve years had to leave. And on the part of the executive, no C.B.N governor could take an appointment in the private financial sector for 5 years after leaving office to get rid of allegations that the C.B.N governor had made policies that would benefit him in his retirement from office. As a result of these new measures and investigation, Sanusi stated that 'we have so far jailed one bank C.E.O and are looking to jail two more.'

On the carrot side, Sanusi organised a weekend away with the C.E.Os of all the banks in Nigeria to find out what went wrong. It was the first meeting of its kind where the C.B.N and the private banking sector had a chance to talk in an informal setting. As Sanusi surmised, there was a 'complete disconnect between the balance sheets of banks and the real economy.' In a country where 42% of the work force was connected to agriculture, why was only 3% of bank lending devoted to this sector? To put it simply the banks were afraid. To lend large amounts to any sectors outside telecommunications and oil and gas seemed too huge a risk in a country like Nigeria.

A country that grew tomatoes locally but was the world's biggest importer of tomato puree; a country  whose highest UK import was refined petroleum, a country that exported imported petrol to other West African countries, a country that imported 5 year old rice from grain reserves, Sanusi even quipped, a country where "General Abacha conducted free and fair elections in Liberia when we didn't have elections in Nigeria. We actually exported democracy." In such a topsy turvy place, you can see why banks were afraid to invest in anything other than the proven cash cows: petroleum and telecommunications.

Of course, the subsidy issue came up. Early on in the evening he joked, 'If there are any Nigerians with shoes, please warn before you throw them.' He added before the QandA session began, 'I've read all the facebook comments. I know half of the people in this room are not happy with me over subsidy.' And in true form, once given the opportunity, many in the audience zeroed in on this issue of subsidy removal.

Sanusi taking questions

Just as an aside, our people can be very funny. Some stood up and listed all their qualifications before they finally got to their question. Really, do we all have to know what your Common Entrance score was before you ask your question? Others didn't ask questions but made impassioned speeches about the unfairness of subsidy removal. One audience member asked in what I assume was a rhetorical question, "If the UK government catches people claiming welfare benefits they are not entitled to, will they decide to scrap welfare altogether?" I'll leave you to draw the link between his question and the removal of the petrol subsidy.

We've all heard the economic pros and cons of subsidy removal. For perhaps the millionth time in the last 23 days, Lamido said, 'I don't have any ideological opposition to subsidy but subsidise production." He added that the subsidy was a hedge because there was no arrangement for rising oil prices so sometimes the government in paying a subsidy, paid more than the consumers 65N. He explained that subsidy payments were made on the basis of documents. 'If you bring me documents saying you brought in 10 million litres of fuel, I will pay you 7.5 billion. If you're a Nigerian, you will bring me those documents." On the matter of policing smuggling of subsidised petrol to West Africa, he pointed out that 22 out of 36 states in Nigeria shared land borders with other countries. He painted a grim picture of the furlongs of barbed wire that would be needed to secure such borders. Even in his adamant defense of subsidy removal, he was at least gracious enough to admit that government had failed in communicating the policy to the people.
What I enjoyed more than this subsidy rhetoric, was Sanusi's poking fun at Nigerians. He spoke of how at a meeting of bankers he had said, "The Nigerian stock exchange has a total capitalisation of $40 billion." Those assembled had applauded. Next he said to them, "This makes ours the third largest stock exchange in Africa." Again, more applause. He concluded, "Yet that is only equivalent of half of the total value of Goldman Sachs...after the financial crisis." The room went silent.

And of course there is the characteristic irreverence he shows to those in power, making you forget for a moment that he is one of them. He joked that the people who complained most about the C.B.N cashless economy initiative, were those who needed to carry Ghana must go bags of cash around in the night. He added that whenever he goes abroad and people ask, 'how come oil prices are going up and foreign reserves in Nigeria are going down?" he would very much like to answer, "Because people are stealing the money."

I found myself warming to Sanusi. It was unfortunate that nobody asked what austerity measures government members were applying to their pay cheques now that they were making the country swallow the bitter pill of subsidy removal. It would have been even better to find out what measures Sanusi himself was taking to make sure his expenses sheet tallied with this mood of austerity. Perhaps such a question would have made him squirm and his effortless delivery may have stuttered. But I doubt it. The man is a cool fish.    

He ended his talk by saying that 2012 is the year of the woman. The C.B.N will allow loans taken by women at single digit rates of interest. It is well known that women are the driven force in small and medium scale enterprises. I will clink my glass to such a policy any day.

Thursday 19 January 2012

The First Time I Was Corrupt

It was in secondary school. I was thirteen. We were going for a state wide basketball competition. Ten girls and ten boys were chosen but each team would be made up of only five. Five would play, five would be subs. I wanted to play, badly. Every Tuesday and Thursday for the past month or so, I had woken up at 5am to jog round the school compound. I had run sprints and shot hoops in the half morning light. Every time I missed a shot, I complained about the poor light. I would have made it in the afternoon, I protested when the ball left my hand and bounced off the rim. I made the ten. I was on the bus, going for the tournament. But would I make the five?

We got to the venue: a large but shabby state school. The hoops were sparse metal rims. No netting hung down from them, like in the NBA. Our first match was scheduled. We went to our court. Our P.E teacher, Mrs O, read out five names. None were mine. She must have seen the fallen faces of the rejected five because she said to us,
"Don't worry. There are many matches today."

The match began. The rival team scored early. Mrs O began to grow agitated on the sidelines.
"Amaka shoot!"
"Deola pass the ball!"
"Shoot! Shoot!"
We were losing, time was passing. Mrs. O called a halftime.
"Deola come and sit down. Chibundu go on."

Me. I was going to play. Me!

The referee brought the sheet that had to be filled whenever a player stepped on the court. Standard questions, Name, School, Age.
Name. Mrs O wrote Chibundu Onuzo.
School. Mrs O wrote Atlantic Hall, Poka-Epe.
"How old are you?" Mrs O asked, her pen poised above the page, impatient to write. Time was going.
"Ah this tournament is for twelve and under."
"But I'm thirteen."
"It doesn't matter. I'll just put twelve."
"Wait," I said, my heart beginning to pound.

It's not that I hadn't lied before. Lies a plenty filled my past. Who drank my Fanta? Who wore my skirt? Who moved my cheese? All questions, I had lied to. But to lie on an official document. To lie about something as fundamental as my age. To tell such a lie, though sanctioned by my teachers, went against everything my parents had ever taught me.

"If I don't put twelve, you can't play."

And I'm afraid to say that sealed the deal for me. Not play, after waking up so many mornings. Not play, after driving two hours to reach this venue. Not play and let one of the other subs take my place. Tofia.

So with my heart pounding, I walked onto the field. Needless to say, I was rubbish. I missed the ball when it was thrown to me. When I caught it, I lost it immediately. I couldn't concentrate. My lie hung too heavily on me. I could hear Mrs. O screaming on the sidelines but it did nothing to spur me on. When a pass I intended for a team mate, ended up in the hands of an opponent who scored a few seconds later, Mrs O shouted, "Time out. Chibundu come and sit down. Deola, you're going back on."

I walked back to the side benches. The other subs made room for me as they offered their condolences.
"You did ok."
"You'll do better in the next match."
"Don't worry."
But I wasn't sad. I was relieved. For the rest of the day, I watched my mostly thirteen and fourteen year old team mates cruise to the silver medal position. When the medals came, even the subs got them. I wore mine proudly around school but secretly, inside, I was glad I had nothing to do with the winning of it.

It was my first taste of corruption and it left a funny feeling in my mouth, like the taste of fruity lip balm, sweet but toxic nonetheless. Hitherto, I had never been directly complicit in anything corrupt. True, bribes had been given on my behalf. I had sat in the car and watched the driver pass money to the low ranking officials whenever we were flagged down for no reason at a police checkpoint.
"Give us something," the bluntest of the police men would say as we pulled over. I was relieved when the drivers paid. I was afraid of the guns but every time money changed hands, I was also angry.
"When I'm older," I would say to the driver after we had driven off, "When I'm older and I have my own car, I won't give those people money."
"If you don't give them," the most pragmatic of the drivers once explained to me, "they will make your life hell for nothing. Better to just give them the twenty Naira and go your way."
I would be different, I thought. I would be the one who would stand by the roadside and refuse to compromise my integrity for the sake of my convenience. Yet, how easily my moral defenses had crumbled when I had to choose between them and something I wanted.

I imagine it is the same for many of our bloated politicians. It is true, some have always been thieves but enough were scrupulous enough in their private careers, for one to wonder how such volte faces took place. We have watched honest enough doctors become thieves. We have watched cabinet members who were highly ranked in the private sector and relatively honest there, become treasury robbers over night. We have watched speakers of the house come from abroad, where they never had criminal records, and begin to dream up the most inventive acts of fraud.

I had never had the opportunity to lie about my age and I had never had the motivation to do so. I imagine it is the same for many of our politicians. Opportunities to steal abound. Motivations to steal can always be found. School fees are due, new house is needed in the village, wife wants diamond earrings for anniversary and of course, chances of getting caught are slim. If I knew that someone would check my passport after Mrs. O wrote that I was twelve, I would have snatched that pen from her.

I want to live in Nigeria one day. And if this happens in the near future it is likely that the opportunities for corruption will still abound. I hope that I will not look for motivation and will dismiss the fact that the chances of my getting caught are slim. I want to be different. I pray I will be different.

It was my birthday yesterday. I'm now 21. We thank God.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Thursday 12 January 2012

Ask for Something More Meaningful than a Reversion to 65N

As I watch the Labour leaders dialogue with the Federal Government as arranged by the National Assembly, I am saddened. The NLC leaders main and only demand for the calling off of this strike is that the pump price of petrol be returned to 65N. What a waste of a movement.The masses are angered, they have stood up and the only thing you demand is 65N petrol. Was Nigeria that great when petrol was 65N? Was there light? Was there infrastructure? Wasn't there still a political elite that was robbing us blind. This is the time to make real and lasting demands because no matter what we protest today, as long as we don't have working refineries in Nigeria, the price of petrol is going to go up in Nigeria, whether under Jonathan or under his successor or the President after that.

Why doesn't Labour ask that National Assembly expenses be cut by 50% before dialogue will take place? How can Abdulwahed Omar, President of the NLC ask such? He's too busy praising the National Assembly. In his own words, he's 'impressed by the intervention of the National Assembly.' The intervention of a dubious group of people. Why doesn't he ask that the prosecution of the so called 'cabal' members should start before dialogue begins to take place? Why doesn't he ask that the President stop eating for 1 Billion Naira in a year? He also said on Channels, 'we are also going to continue a meeting at a different venue with them and some expanded meeting at 5.' Perhaps the deals behind closed doors have begun.

I'm very sad. A protest of the people has been hijacked by the NLC and no real gains for the people will be made. Someone else needs to grab the mic and start making some real demands before a golden opportunity is lost. If petrol doesn't return to 65N but some of the above demands are met, I think Nigeria will be better off. Even if the demands I've listed are useless, brighter people than myself should come up with better suggestions. Just add something other than this dogmatic repetition of '65 Naira or nothing!" At 65 Naira we basically had nothing. Should petrol return to its former price tomorrow, the movement will dissipate. People will go back to living under a corrupt elite. Nothing, nothing, nothing has changed.

I don tire for Occupy Nigeria.

Friday 6 January 2012

Occupy Nigeria London Branch

As you may know, the cost of petrol has more than doubled in Nigeria overnight due to the removal of the fuel subsidy. With little organisation, spontaneous protests have broken out all over the country. These protests have been dubbed OccupyNigeria by the twitterati and the name seems to have stuck. In solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Nigeria, today, Nigerians in the UK came to protest in front of the Nigerian High Commission on Northumberland Avenue.

Personally, I think there is some very sound, economical, common sensical thinking behind the removal of the fuel subsidy. However, I do support a peaceful protest and I'm always glad to see the Nigerians in diaspora uniting, so I went along to looku looku, take photos and report for you guys.  
Protest when I arrived 
The event started at 12.30 and sources tell me that for once there was no African time. At 12.30, a sizeable crowd gathered to express their disapproval of Jonathan's policy. The atmosphere was festive but somewhat intimidating when I arrived at 1.30. I stood opposite the crowd, wondering whether to join them or pretend I was just a casual passerby. People were pushed right up to the barricades and I worried there would be a crush. Then I heard a trumpeter toot a line of, "Winner Ooo, Winner!" Nah my people nah. I crossed the road to join them.  

Between the Barricades
When I got between the barricades, I was relieved to see the crowd was not at dense as I had feared. Still the numbers were sizeable. A petition was going around which I declined to sign. A group to the left was chanting, "We no go gree o! We no go gree!" Everyone's phonetics was dropped for the day and to the left and right of me, I could hear heated conversations going on in Nigerian accented English. I saw people from my Church between the barricades. I saw my Muslim friend from Kings. I hung out with an Igbo journalist. It was Wazobia and all the languages in between.
Dele Momodu at Protest. Image Sourced from @DoubleEph
Prior to my arrival, a former presidential aspirant showed up to speechify. Apparently his name had not been on the list of those to make speeches but once he arrived, he was given immediate priority. One disgruntled protester complained to me, "Now photos are going to go round and people will think Dele Momodu is pulling crowd in London." In his view, it would work to Mr. Momodu's political advantage to be shown speaking to a crowd he had done nothing to assemble. In fact, he even went as far as to suggest Mr. Momodu would gain economically from this. "Goodluck will phone him and ask what he should do to calm the people in London and he will now say, bring 50 million pounds." This statement is indicative of the level of distrust Nigerians have come to have for their government. We now see conspiracies and cabals everywhere.

I walked round and took some photos of the placards I saw.

There were camera crews hovering around and I recorded one woman venting her frustration at the government of Nigeria. Because they couldn't get their act together, Nigerians had to come abroad to be 'cleaning yansh' as she bluntly put it. She had come out to protest today because those in Nigeria, she believed, would be killed if they came out to do the same.

My favourite part of the event was wandering around and striking up conversations with strangers. I got accused of being a member of the Jonathan family. My patriotism was called into question. Everywhere discussions were springing up. I say discussion but a passerby might have thought heated argument. It was all in good cheer though. Shouting soon dissolved into laughter, handshaking and back slapping. I love my country people.
A protester making his point vehemently
Camera crew
I left when the protest was dying down. At the time I left, the Nigerian High Commissioner had still refused to receive the petition. His absence was irrelevant. The people had opened their mouths and discovered they could speak. My name is Chibundu Onuzo. God bless and good night. 

Sunday 1 January 2012

A Wonderful Start To 2012

Chibundu Onuzo, Faramarez Dabhoiwala and Harriet Lane
Happy New Year Folks. Plenty grace and favour this year in Jesus name for all of us. The Observer was kind enough to do a short feature on me and two other writers and they put it up on the Guardian website. Check, check, check, check it out, here.

The afro is not a wig, just in case you were wondering. :)
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