• Wednesday, July 24, 2024
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2023: Central banker or politician? Emefiele must decide what he is

How we made payment system in Nigeria globally competitive – CBN

All over the world, Central Bank governors are treated as special breeds. They are critical to the success or failure of national economies.

Their words and actions, direct or indirect, can move markets and affect economic performance. Consequently, Central Bank governors are traditionally orthodox, usually circumspect and circumscribed in what they say or do.

So, it is absolutely unprecedented, utterly beyond the pale, for a Central Bank governor to be associated, even remotely, with nursing a presidential ambition while still in office.

Yet, that’s what is happening in Nigeria, with the rumoured presidential ambition of Godwin Emefiele, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).

Over the past one year, speculations have been rife, recently reaching fever pitch, that Emefiele wants to run for president in 2023. Several people and groups have spent hundreds of millions of naira on a proxy campaign for him.

They flooded major Nigerian cities with campaign billboards and posters, and recently commissioned thousands of branded vehicles, emblazoned with Emefiele’s face.

More audaciously, on March 26, Emefiele’s supporters thronged the national convention of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, beating the drum for his presidential ambition, while President Muhammadu Buhari looked on seemingly approvingly, suggesting some form of encouragement, if not endorsement, by the president and his party.

Can anyone imagine campaign posters for the ‘presidential ambition’ of a sitting chairman of the US Federal Reserve being displayed anywhere near the national convention of either the Democrats or the Republicans?

Or can you envisage people carrying placards at the annual conference of the Conservative Party or the Labour Party in the UK, campaigning for the Governor of the Bank of England to become British prime minister? Utterly unthinkable!

But anything is possible in Nigeria, a country where the rules and norms of civilised nations, the ethos of good governance, do not apply. I mean, think about it: even civil society organisations (CSOs), who, elsewhere, are champions and defenders of good governance, have joined the call on Emefiele to run for president, and insisted he should remain CBN governor while nursing that ambition. What kind of people make up the CSOs in Nigeria?

Of course, Emefiele himself is tacitly behind the proxy campaign; and he is lapping up the attention and adulation. True, he has not formally declared to run for president in 2023, but there’s no doubt that he has a presidential ambition.

Emefiele is testing the waters: if the coast is clear, if President Buhari, who holds the cards on who becomes APC’s presidential candidate, gives him the right signals, he would throw his hat in the ring.

Surely, were Emefiele not implicitly endorsing the proxy campaign, he should have a) condemned, in the strongest terms, the campaigners and their faceless financiers; b) dissociated himself unambiguously from them and their campaigns; and c) disclaimed categorically and unequivocally any interest in the 2023 presidency. But he has done none of these; instead, he issued weasel statements that could have fooled only the most gullible.

For instance, in February, Emefiele told a group called “Friends of Godwin Emefiele” that “it’s the prerogative of President Buhari to plan his succession”, adding: “And given that it’s God that anoints leaders, I will leave my faith firmly in the hands of God.” Of course, that’s not a categorical disavowal of a presidential ambition.

In Nigeria, when someone denies nursing a political ambition, but says he leaves his faith in God’s hands, you know he’s actually nursing such ambition. Emefiele’s calculation, based on political feelers, is that he might, by a quirk of fate, be President Buhari’s successor!

In his most recent statement, on March 28, Emefiele said: “My focus at this time is a robust monetary policy and fighting inflation …” That, too, is not a categorical denial.

The words “at this time” leave a wriggle room should he, as someone speculated, be “pressured into running” as “a candidate with South-South and Igbo background”.

Recently, some newspapers cited a Harvard economist who predicted that if the APC zoned its 2023 presidential ticket to the South, Emefiele might “be the next Obasanjo”, meaning that he could become president even though, like Obasanjo, he never previously held an elective national office.

Leave aside the so-called prediction, what’s clear is that no one is ignoring speculations about Emefiele’s presidential ambition; many in the media, academia and the general public believe that, fortuity allowing, he would run for the 2023 presidency.

Herein lies the problem. Emefiele is constitutionally entitled to run for president, but he cannot use his position as “Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria” to further that ambition.

Worldwide, Central Bank governors have gone on to hold political offices. In Nigeria, Clement Isong and, recently, Charles Soludo became state governors years after leaving office as CBN governors. In the US, Janet Yellen, former Chair of the Federal Reserve, is now the Secretary of the Treasury (Finance Minister) in President Biden’s administration. But none of these central bankers nursed a political ambition or engaged in politicking while in office.

So, Emefiele can have political or presidential ambitions, but he cannot, directly or indirectly, pursue those ambitions as a sitting CBN governor.

Read also: Who is bankrolling Emefiele’s political campaigns?

Sadly, as I once wrote in this column, Emefiele is a deeply political Central Bank governor, who has watered down the CBN’s independence to kowtow to President Buhari, whose common phrase is: “I have ordered the central bank to do this or do that”. Truth be told, under Emefiele’s leadership, the CBN enjoys hardly any of the different forms of independence usually associated with central banks: institutional independence, goal independence, instrument independence, functional and operational independence.

Indeed, the CBN, under Emefiele, is more like a national bank than a central bank. A national bank is controlled by the state, lacks independence from political interference, routinely finances federal government deficits and projects, and enriches special interests.

These, let’s face it, are the main preoccupations of the CBN under Emefiele’s leadership: arbitrarily printing money to feed the Buhari government’s deficit-financing with massive overdrafts; and propping up an inefficient agricultural sector with billions of naira, much of which benefit “political farmers” and other politically-connected individuals, thus enriching special interests.

By contrast, take the real things that central banks should and normally care about – inflation, employment, interest rate, exchange rate, economic growth – the key indicators of sound economic management. How has the CBN performed?

Well, all the economic indicators have deteriorated to unprecedented levels under Buhari’s presidency and under Emefiele’s governorship of the CBN. Instead of engendering a sound economy, the CBN, under Emefiele, is more interested in gratifying President Buhari.

Recently, during the commissioning of the Dangote fertiliser plant, Emefiele gave a cringing speech, eulogising Buhari. “We thoroughly studied, deeply assimilated and enthusiastically implemented your vision from Day 1 of your administration,” Emefiele said, adding: “We will continue to work hard to protect your legacy and ensure that posterity remembers you for all you have done for our country.”

That’s beyond belief. Can you imagine the Governor of the South African Reserve Bank grovelling before the president of South Africa in that way? Is it the job of a Central Bank to protect a president’s legacy? No, it is not. Emefiele should run the CBN to achieve a liberal and stable economy rather than pander to Buhari’s vision of a managed economy, with the misguided policy of import substitution, which failed woefully in Latin America.

Well, scholars are right: politically-ambitious Central Bank governors tend to please a powerful president for favours. Emefiele runs the CBN largely to please President Buhari. He was rewarded with an unprecedented second term. He now hopes that Buhari anoints him as his successor. Emefiele must decide what he really is: a central banker or a politician?

Happy Easter everyone!