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Abiola Phillips: The next CBN governor


Abiola Phillips: The next CBN governor

by Abiola Phillips

The term of office of Sanusi Lamido Sanusi as Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) will end in 2014, but he has already announced that he will not seek reappointment. While this announcement may seem unusual in the Nigerian context, informed observers know that Sanusi’s announcement is simply a reflection of his less than cordial relationship with President Goodluck Jonathan.

Even if he had sought a second term, the chance of his getting it was nil because of his scarcely concealed disdain for the President, to whom the CBN Governor reports directly. Sanusi’s many political controversies have frequently unsettled the executive and legislative arms of government.

READ: Behold, The First Governor To Deny Interest In A Second Term

Does all this mean that Sanusi has been a failure as CBN Governor? Certainly not, and in fact he was quite successful in some important ways. He stabilized a troubled Nigerian banking system that wobbled as a result of failures of corporate governance and risk management and the impact of the global financial crisis. But he was able to do this only because his predecessor, Professor Chukwuma Soludo, also accomplished the singular feat of the consolidation of Nigeria’s 89 banks, most of them flimsy affairs that were simply glorified currency traders, into 24 well capitalized banks. The banking sector consolidation made the near failures of some banks in the face of the global financial crisis even manageable. Without the consolidation, the Nigerian banking industry would have been wiped out by the global crisis and perhaps our national economy along with it. But Sanusi managed the banking crisis with courage and decisiveness.

Second, the CBN under Sanusi has maintained a stable monetary policy, achieving price and exchange rate stability. Price stability and financial system (banking sector) stability are the two most important mandates of the apex bank, alongside currency management and the maintenance of our foreign reserves. Sanusi’s tight monetary policy has made him the darling of foreign portfolio investors on the lookout for where their investments can get the best interest yields.

The question that should influence the choice of Sanusi’s successor is this: at what cost have Sanusi’s successes been achieved, and were those costs avoidable? The costs that have attended Sanusi’s tenure in office have been many, and most of those costs were perfectly avoidable and extremely damaging, not only to the CBN itself but also to the wider Nigerian polity. He has politicised the office of the governor of the CBN far more than any other governor in the history of the organisation. He triggered a constant stream of attention grabbing controversies and created a cult of personality. Ironically for someone who claims to be a risk manager, he became the chief risk factor to the institution he heads by causing directly the numerous misguided attempts by some legislators and sundry other vested interests to revoke the statutory independence of the CBN. Without that independence, no central bank of a country can function effectively and will become just another government parastatal run or teleguided by politicians. Had this happened in Nigeria at this stage of our economic evolution, it would have been a terrible outcome, confirming our retrogression to the status of a banana republic. But we came close, and the threat has not completely dissipated, all thanks to our CBN Governor.

Lamido Sanusi gave the appearance of having a religious agenda in the manner in which he arrogantly and brazenly promoted Islamic banking, needlessly overheating the country’s domestic political space in a manner that suggests poor political judgment for someone in his position. Questions have been raised about the legitimacy and impartiality of some of his regulatory decisions because of his background as a banking industry operator and the partisan wars with some of his erstwhile colleagues in the banks, which he may have carried into his regulatory function and executed under that guise.

Many critics believe he had a personal agenda dressed up in elegant arguments and rhetoric, demonstrated in the sale and recapitalization of some of the troubled banks. And there have been questions also about the professionalism with which he has managed the CBN. He is believed to have imported political agendas into the management processes of the apex bank. He has evidently been unable to separate his personal and traditional ambitions in his native Kano from what is supposed to be a professional office of CBN Governor, and has in fact used what is a public office and public funds to pursue that ambition. Overall, Sanusi will be leaving behind a much weakened CBN than the one he met on his appointment to the post.

When we consider the lessons from Sanusi’s tumultuous era as CBN Governor, what kind of person should be appointed to replace him? Perhaps it is better to start with who should not be appointed. The next CBN Governor should not be a politician. Such a background automatically makes a partisan approach to the duties of the office likely. This would still be a bad idea regardless of whether or not the individual has been either a commercial banker or even a CBN staff in a previous career.

The next CBN Governor should not be a banking industry operator. To appoint a serving or former bank managing director would be a big mistake. The conflicts of interest in such a scenario are fundamental. Commercial bankers think mostly about making profit for their shareholders, and most have significant ownership interests in the banks they manage. As a regulator, a person with this kind of background may have difficulty balancing the many interests a central bank governor should consider and will likely promulgate regulatory policies that are pro banks at the expense of other important calculations. It is true that Sanusi has imposed a contribution by Nigerian banks to a sinking fund to help resolve Nigeria’s banking crisis, but that is because he had no other choice if the problem was to be addressed without direct intervention by the Federal Government.

Also, commercial bankers have a more narrow perspective that is focused on finance, technical banking and business deals. Very few have the intellectual weight or professional exposure needed to manage a central bank in today’s world or a public institution such as the CBN, including essential experience in formulating broader monetary and economic policy or the regulation of the financial sector. A CBN Governor is at its essence a public policy function. Again, a commercial banker will have gathered many “friends” and “enemies” in the banking industry during a long career, and will be tempted to favour friends while “regulating” detractors. As we have seen, this is a subtext in some of the regulatory actions taken by Sanusi in his banking reforms. Lastly, individuals with controversial histories should not be considered for appointment as CBN Governor.

With this in mind, current speculation about the possible appointment of some politicians and bank executives should make us wonder when we will get truly serious about institutional leadership appointments in this country. One can only hope that President Jonathan does not capitulate to the desperate lobbyists parading the corridors of the presidency with deep pockets and appoint another CBN Governor that will trigger controversies from day one, further lowering confidence in his government and in the CBN. Jonathan needs to make an appointment to this post that will bolster the sagging ratings of his embattled government.

What type of person should get the job? Professionalism, and competence as an economic and regulatory policy maker should be the leading factor in the President’s consideration. These factors are far more important, and may even reap greater political benefits for the government, than factors such as what geopolitical zone the nominee comes from. The next CBN Governor should be someone able to repair the political battering the apex bank has suffered on account of the personality and tendencies of its present governor, which have unquestionably weakened and distracted the institution. This should narrow the field and result in a more serious search process in which the track record of potential appointees is well investigated and objectively evaluated. Looking at the CBN at this juncture and at what Nigeria needs, it is important that the reforms instituted by Sanusi be continued, deepened and executed with less drama and bad blood to avoid unnecessary policy reversals. What this suggests is that President Jonathan should take a close look inside the CBN hierarchy itself, especially since he claims that he wants to build institutions. One advantage with a CBN insider is that it will build the institution instead of building someone’s ego, and ensure continuity of policy in a most important part of our country’s economic management. The President can also look at other regulatory or government institutions, or perhaps the academia, although academics may be too wedded to theories and may lack leadership experience with running large institutions and with financial regulation.

A little bit of research on the CBN website revealed a surprising and little-known fact: five out of the nine Nigerians who have served as CBN Governors have been senior executives of the apex bank before their appointment. A sixth, Chukwuma Soludo, did not come from within the apex bank but was the chief economic adviser to the Federal Government prior to his appointment. With the exception of Lamido Sanusi, the two other CBN chiefs who had served as managing directors of banks before becoming governor (and even one of these, Joseph Sanusi, was a career CBN official who rose to become Deputy Governor for several years before leaving to be the Managing Director of UBA and later First Bank) did so in a completely different era. That era was one in which Nigeria’s leading commercial banks were largely owned by governments. Lamido Sanusi is therefore the first “pure” free-market-era bank chief to head the CBN. The experience of his tenure and many other factors clearly recommend against appointing a successor with a similar profile.

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– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Abiola Phillips

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