This banker turned whistleblower has a revolutionary message for Nigeria
‘Lamido Sanusi: ‘If the population as a whole starts protesting what is going on in our country, how many of them can they kill?’
Aristocrats rarely turn whistleblower. After all, they are more often than not the beneficiaries of a social order that guarantees them a life of privilege. So the least one could expect is that they avoid rocking the boat. Criticism of the status quo is supposed to be the preserve of the have-nots.
Hence the surprise of many when Lamido Sanusi, scion of one of the most powerful royal families in northern Nigeria, started talking publicly about alleged corruption in the oil industry and billions in missing revenue.
Sanusi had, up until now, led a pretty predictable life. He attended the right schools, enjoyed a successful banking career and in 2009 was appointed governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Hardly your stereotypical activist candidate.
But this wealthy nobleman has emerged as a thorn in the neck of Nigeria’s government since alleging last December that $20bn of the country’s oil revenue went missing in the year 2012-13, and that Nigeria is being “raped by vested interests”. The government has rejected his claims. Sanusi insists the money is gone.
Last week, President Goodluck Jonathan “suspended” him from his position as central bank chief, sending the country’s currency on a downward spiral and prompting uncertainty on the Nigerian stock exchange.
In typical fashion, the government is now accusing the whistleblower of “financial recklessness”, warning that he could be prosecuted. Sanusi denies any wrongdoing and says talk of jail won’t scare him into silence.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s ruling elite is infuriated that one of their own is now airing their dirty laundry in public..
The obvious solution would be to throw Sanusi in jail on some trumped-up charges. But this would be problematic because of his family connections, especially as the president desperately needs the support of northern power brokers to win re-election in 2015.
Sanusi’s accusations carry weight because of who he is. For decades, journalists and activists have been lamenting about the massive corruption in Nigeria, often eliciting little more than a bored yawn or two.
The government of the day usually brushes them off as sensationalists desperate to make themselves relevant. Sadly enough, in the fiercely materialistic and hierarchial society that Nigeria is, it’s all too easy to paint (usually poorly paid) government critics as green-with-envy, attention-seeking “nobodies”.
Rooting for the underdog is not part of the national psyche in Nigeria. Admiration is usually reserved for the mighty, and the instinct is to bow low before them. Fela Kuti, the late legendary Nigerian Afrobeat musician and social critic, once said his countrymen “suffer and smile”; a stance he described as “approaching slave mentality”.
Nigerians have mastered the art of peaceful coexistence with inequality and oppression. Furthermore, people are tired of hearing about how they are being ripped off by their rulers because they feel powerless to do anything about it. It’s like the guy who knows his wife is cheating on him but can’t find it in himself to leave her. Reminding him of her infidelity will only irritate him by increasing his feeling of helplessness.
But when insiders start whistleblowing about the rot within a ruling class and encourage defiance towards it, people listen and those rulers start to worry just a bit more. After all, we don’t want people getting any silly ideas.
Sanusi says Nigeria will never realise its potential as long as vested interests continue to loot it, stressing the need to overcome fear of these individuals. Still, most folk are wary of such revolutionary talk and of challenging their rulers outright. “Sanusi can talk because he is from a powerful family and they can’t just do away with him that easily. But who would protect me from them?” one Nigerian asked me recently.
I asked the man at the centre of the controversy how he would respond to such concerns. “It is always easier for power to deal with an individual than with a mass movement, no matter who that individual is. If the population as a whole starts protesting what is going on in our country, how many of them can they kill?” Sanusi replied, adding that the ousted leaders of Ukraine and the Arab spring nations “never did half as much damage to their countries as our rulers have”.
He complained of a “worrying lack of social consciousness” in Nigeria and a “reluctance to ask the powers that be tough questions anywhere other than on Facebook”.
“We should always remember that, in the end, this country belongs to us,” Sanusi added. Nowadays, “entitlement” has become a dirty word in many western countries, conjuring up images of welfare-seeking bums. However, in the case of Nigeria, it is the people’s lack of a sense of entitlement that enables their rulers rip them off so easily while they meekly accept a life of poverty and hardship as inevitable.
That seems to be the message this aristocrat turned activist is trying to get across.