Nigerian government distorting facts on foreign reserves to confuse citizens, says Ezekwesili

Oby Ezekwesili
Oby Ezekwesili

The former Minister insists the government is not telling the truth about the foreign reserves.

A former Vice-President of the World Bank, Oby Ezekwesili, has accused the Federal Government of deliberately distorting the facts about the foreign reserve controversy to mislead Nigerians.

The former Education Minister recently stirred the hornet’s nest when she accused the Federal Government of mismanaging about $45 billion foreign reserves and $22 billion excess crude savings the Obasanjo administration left for the late Yar’Adua administration, succeeded by the present regime.

On January 27, while delivering the keynote address at the 42nd convocation ceremony of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Ms. Ezekwesili accused Nigeria’s governments since 2007 of squandering $45 billion in the Foreign Reserve Account and another $22 billion in the Excess Crude Account, demanding “full disclosure and accountability by the Federal Government on the issues of poor management of oil revenues.”

Since her allegation, several top government officials, including the Minister of Information, Labaran Maku; and the Senior Special Adviser to the President on Public Affairs, Doyin Okupe; have risen in stout defence of the government, accusing Ms. Ezekwesili of calculated blackmail.

Though Ms. Ezekwesili, who during her time in charge of the process to birth the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, EITI, in Nigeria was widely known as ‘Madam Due Process’, because of her believed adherence to principles, has challenged government to a public debate on the issue, none of the officials has so far taken up the challenge.

Side Comments

The former World Bank chief is incensed that rather than take her up, some officials are engaging in what she calls “side comments” over a serious issue of national importance.

“Why won’t the federal government agree to the public hearing called by National Assembly?” Ms. Ezekwesili questioned in a statement issued on Thursday.

According to her, following an invitation from the National Assembly to participate in a public hearing, she rescheduled all her international commitments to be able to attend the event, scheduled for March 5, only to learn later that the government was not ready.

“They were not and (are) still not ready for a public discussion of the issues, but they seize every opportunity to make “side comments” on such a serious issue?” she said.

The latest of such comments was from the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, Lamido Sanusi, who, while speaking as a guest at a luncheon of the Metropolitan Club in Lagos last weekend, sought to disparage Ezekwesili, claiming Nigeria never had as much as $67billion in its external reserves.

According to Mr. Sanusi, the Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan governments never squandered Nigeria’s commonwealth, rather the money was used to take care of a national emergency economic situation posed by the petroleum subsidy crisis.

“There is also a certain truth to a basic proposition that if we saved money when oil price was high, it is expected that when oil price crashes, we would de-save. Look at Germany, U.S., U.K., after the crisis. They all had huge deficits. So, our incurring of deficit was a reduction in reserves.

“No one can deny that between 2010 and 2011, when oil price was going up, we should have saved more than we actually did, rather we spent more than we ought to. As CBN Governor, I spent the whole of those two years talking about fiscal leakages,” Mr. Sanusi said.

Fiscal leakages

Ms. Ezekwesili, in her statement, said the Central Bank Governor may have misread the point she made in her speech, urging him to “read that speech again.”

According her, for Mr. Sanusi to have admitted that there were ‘fiscal leakages’ meant there were reckless behaviours in the management of available resources that resulted in huge losses to the government.

“Since they are finally admitting “fiscal leakages,” perhaps with a debate we can all learn more,” she said, pointing out that though her speech made reference to $45 billion foreign reserve, government officials, like the CBN governor, have been quoting $67 billion “in order to paint the picture of false accusation to manipulate and distract everyone.”

“He (Sanusi) knows that they are distorting the point of my article by using their “straw number” of $67 billion, which I did not use in my speech. My speech stated $45billion Foreign Reserve and $22billion ECA (excess crude account), and he, more than anyone else, knows that Excess Crude Account is a sub-set of Foreign Reserve.

“Sanusi knows that the Foreign Reserve is a “composite” or “aggregate” amount of ALL official foreign exchange belonging to a country. So I wonder why they are seeking to confuse the point for citizens.

“He knows that I separated the ECA amount in that speech deliberately to make a separate point on the terrible fiscal choices of expenditure that wrecked what was supposed to be “savings for rainy days,” she said.

Magnitude of ‘leakage’

Having admitted to the existence of fiscal leakages, she challenged the CBN governor to let the public know the magnitude of that leakage of public resources, in line with the principles of transparency, accountability and openness in a democracy.

“Is it not proper that we should learn how it is that our Foreign Reserve was depleted and was not growing over a period of at least 4 years of high oil prices – double the prices at the time that the $45 billion Foreign Reserve was accumulated?” she queried.

“Except for a few months in 2009 when oil prices fell significantly, but then sharply rose again, what explains the fact that our public finance is under stress at a season of Oil Boom, which other OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) nations are relishing?” she asked.

While calling on the media to keep up the pressure on the Executive to agree to the public hearing by the National Assembly, Ms. Ezekwesili insisted the issue was not about her person, but about Nigeria and how the political class abuses the people with impunity.

“I have no personal gain in standing on my now over two and a half decade conviction that good governance is the foundation of any decent society that has ever been built to greatness all over the world,” she said, pointing out that when Mr. Sanusi’s predecessor, Chukwuma Soludo, left office in 2009, about $45 billion was left in the reserve, despite that about $15 billion was spent on defending the Naira.

According to her, since 2009, oil prices have averaged between $95 and $100 per barrel, with Nigeria exporting an average of 750million barrels per annum.

“How then can the Foreign Reserve only now be starting to grow back to the same size it was in 2009 after such hefty earnings of the last 4 years?” she questioned, saying Nigerians need to know why the numbers being bandied by the Federal Government and its top officials do not add up.

“The citizens need an explanation and that’s why I called for accountability. It is simply a patriotic call which should not result in the name calling by officials of government,” she averred.

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