Lamiɗo Sanusi leaves as he began, not with a whimper, but with a bang. And in a sense, it was ever going to be thus: the closely-woven elites that have monopolised power in Nigeria for decades only allowed a reformer into such a powerful position as central bank governor because of the unprecedented financial collapse of 2009.
Sanusi was chosen and backed by the late President Yar’Adua, himself an atypical president, who had balanced the books as governor and shown a genuine interest in helping farmers rather than getting onside the oil sector.
He has consistently chivvied against poor governance, both from inside the tent — as was shown by Wikileaks documents that revealed Sanusi telling Yar’Adua that his ministers were opportunists — and from outside the tent, with more public pronouncements. And now the reports and letters.
But now that the economy is on a more even keel, now that the stables are cleaner, and now with a looming hard-fought election that will need serious lubrication from the emergent domestic oil sector, an irritant of Sanusi-like proportions must be dispensed with.
Most critics of Sanusi start with the idea that the Nigerian Central Bank had over-reached its mandate. They are probably right.
But in a country where institutional failure has reached epic proportions, history would suggest that leadership — even if it does stray over narrow institutional boundaries — must be applauded.
In the early 1900s, when Americans were being ripped off by massive cartels that had bought off both political parties, President Theodore Roosevelt reached out to civil society.
Linking hands with journalists, Roosevelt bypassed Congress, named and shamed Big Oil, and eventually kicked off an era of better regulation, which all US citizens enjoy today. He probably broke the rules.
And with the presidency in recent years not appearing capable of these kinds of exploits, Sanusi went further in trying to resurrect leadership in Nigeria.
During the power vaccuum months when Yar’Adua was receiving treatment in Saudi Arabia, the Central Bank Governor turned the Nigerian Central Bank briefly into a training centre for agricultural development.
He brought in Akinwumi Adesina, now Agriculture Minister but then a Vice President of the Alliance for A Green Revolution in Africa, to run workshops on crop insurance, and how to restructure the sector along holistic lines. He then recommended him to Jonathan as minister.
A few months later the NIRSAL scheme was announced.
No doubt this is another overstretch — why should a Central Bank be playing the role of Prime Minister, bringing together finance and agriculture to launch innovative funding mechanisms for farmers.
History might look back and ask who was behind the renaissance in Nigerian agribusiness. Given the lack of leadership in the sector beforehand, are we really to spit on the initiative?
Sanusi has been a clear promoter of industrial policy for many years.
When others arrive at the conclusion that promoting Nigerian business from within, for example by raising tariffs on imported cars, who will take the credit? Perhaps the former number two of the World Bank, finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a seemingly recent convert to the idea, certainly not approved chez Bretton Woods.
It will also be interesting to discover who had the idea of bringing the diesel cartel inside the tent, and give them power stations to run rather than have them sabotage the sector: one of the top judo manoeuvres seen in Nigeria’s political economy in recent decades.
But to point to the biggest elephant in the room of Nigerian politics, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), is to touch the live wire of Nigerian politics.
Sanusi’s passion for tackling the oil sector corruption started on Day One of his job.
In parsing through the bad debts that had been run up by the banks, he saw the cancer of the fuel subsidy racket. He didn’t flinch in taking on the banks. He didn’t flinch in taking on the fuel subsidy cabal. He didn’t flinch in taking on the power cabal. He didn’t flinch in taking on the NNPC.
Even if it meant precipitating the last day of his job.
Is he a one-man anti-corruption agency — of course not. But if not him, then who? Nigeria is about to find out.
Once the blowhards who felt their pride pricked by his manner calm down, once the chestbeaters stop crowing their vindication, what will be left?
Was the system changed enough to make a difference? Do the waters roll back? Will the sandcastle be washed away?
Nicholas Norbrook, Editor