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Watch it, Sanusi!

By Rotimi  Fasan

DURING the live screening of Lamido Sanusi’s confirmatory appearance before the Senate, last June, I was in a friend’s office. My friend had a visitor, an ex-banker now PR practitioner, who had professional knowledge of the Central Bank Governor. They had worked together at the United Bank for Africa. She had very good things to say about his competence as a banker and knowledge of the banking sector.

It was from her that I first learned that Lamido Sanusi is a polygamist, a fact which she somewhat implied had to do with his being a Moslem, one who never joked with his prayers even while at work. The only minus, from my perspective, in all she had to say about Sanusi was his being a polygamist. Her disapproval of Sanusi’s polygamy was understandable even if it was one my friend, who wondered what that had to do with his knowledge of banking, couldn’t share. I agreed with my friend too. Yet one cannot deny that part of what my friend’s visitor felt uneasy about Sanusi was the hint that Sanusi was something of a religious fanatic.

Many Nigerians, in the wake of Sanusi’s move against five banking chiefs, had spoken loudly of his having a hidden agenda, a regional/ethnic/religious score to settle. Sanusi has been taken up on this on several occasions and his response has been that he had no such agenda. And quite logically, he said, as he did recently in London, that Nigerians would simply have to wait and watch his action as there was  no way he could prove to them that he harboured no hidden agenda.

There is, for me, no reason to believe yet that the Governor has an agenda other than what his position at the Central Bank allows for. Yet there are worrying signs that Sanusi might already be treading in dangerous territories, taking steps that can lend credence to the accusations levelled at him. Specifically, I refer to Malam- and there are increasing reasons to believe that this title might accord with Sanusi’s recent postures- but I refer to Malam Sanusi’s seeming obsession with what one might now call his pet project- Islamic banking. At a recent event organised in connection with the just ended Ramadan season, Malam Sanusi was reported as saying that machinery would be put in place to facilitate Islamic banking in Nigeria.

On the face of it there is nothing wrong in the Governor’s comment. He is a Nigerian who enjoys, like other Nigerians, the freedom of expression and, indeed, has the right to establish a private organisation, including a bank, faith-based or otherwise, alone or in concert with others. But unfortunately Malam Sanusi cannot do this while serving as governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. In this position his constituency is Nigeria and he cannot use the platform of the Central Bank to promote a sectional interest, especially one with the highly partisan and polarising hint of religion.

By doing this Sanusi may be succumbing, inadvertently, to a typical Nigerian malaise where a person is no sooner appointed into a position than they see themselves or are claimed as belonging to a particular constituency or another.
Using an Islamic forum to talk about Islamic banking might look right but not when this has to do with policy statements that go to the roots of banking practice in the country. Anyone interested in it can go ahead to set up a faith-based bank- Islamic, Christian or Animist.

That is their lookout. During the rash of public offers that played out about two years ago, a well-known ex-bank chief, a Moslem by faith, promoted a company headed by his wife that promised not to employ investors’ funds in businesses that do not conduce with the tenets of Islam. Interested Nigerians purchased them. There’s no reason to suppose only Moslems bought that company’s IPOs.  Those buyers needed nobody to tell them the merits or otherwise of such investment. But that is not the same thing as a public official employing his position either to support or condemn what should be a wholly private concern. Malam Sanusi would be putting his foot right in his own mouth to do that.

It was the same mistake the Nigerian government made when, about two and half decades ago, it came up with talks of taking Nigeria to the Organisation of Islamic Countries. One of the benefits of joining the OIC, the argument went, was access to ready and interest-free loans. So far, we are yet to be told how much of such loans Nigeria has enjoyed and to what use they have been put. Which is to say that Malam Sanusi’s rhapsodies about the relative merits of Islamic banking has a ring of stale news. Despite attempts to the contrary, there is really nothing new about it.

As for the touted transparency of such banking system, there is as yet no proof of that. Islamic banking in its modern incarnation has a history that is less than three decades. It is such an infinitesimal aspect of the world banking system that its impact is far less than a mere scratch on the surface of what is done through conventional banking. And no matter what the advantages might be, once the operators of the system are the same corrupt people we have around, there is nothing inherent in the Islamic model to forestall what they might do. In other words, banks operated on Islamic principles would not run by themselves. Many of those on trial today for violations of banking regulations are Nigerians of various faiths, including Islam.

Nor were the five affected banks run on the principles of particular religions. Wherein then lies Malam Sanusi’s sweet imaginings about the advantages of Islamic banking except that it appeals to him for purely personal though religious reasons? Which may be the point being made all the while by those who accuse him of nursing a hidden agenda. Such agenda doesn’t have to be ethnic or regional. It could be as ordinary as promoting personal prejudices that manifest in ethnic terms. This is where the danger lies for Sanusi and he must watch it.

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