Finance Minister tries to save her reputation by supporting NNPC audit.
The Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has supported the audit of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) – a move that some believe is a part of a larger PR campaign to save minister's reputation and signal to the international financial community that she is angry with those behind the oil scandal, specifically the Petroleum Minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke.
In an editorial opinion piece 'Recent setbacks will not undo Nigeria’s progress' published in the Financial Times on Thursday, Okonjo-Iweala has called for reforms in the Nigerian oil sector to end decades of suspicion of widespread corruption and supported the investigation authorized by President Goodluck Jonathan into allegations of large-scale fraud by the NNPC.
Okonjo-Iweala’s remarks followed the decision of the president to carry out audit of the NNPC. This move is a repose to the allegations of the former governor of the Central Bank, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, that the NNPC had not remitted $20bn of oil revenue to the Federation Account.
Sanusi was removed from his position days after he had said the money was missing. While the Presidency has insisted that Sanusi was suspended over "gross misconduct" at the Central Bank, Sanusi has said his removal was politically-motivated.
Several sources said that Okonjo-Iweala's article is a part of a larger public relations campaign to save her reputation from ruining
The minister fights back
According to Sahara Reporters, although Alison-Madueke is the immediate focus of the missing revenue and alleged widespread corruption in the oil sector, Okonjo-Iweala’s reputation as a solid economic manager has also taken a major hit as her failure to detect the anomalies in the oil sector has been questioned.
Sahara Reporters disclosed that the finance minister has used the foreign lobby and the services of an image management firm, which is a big player in Washington DC, to repair her own image as well as help fix the Jonathan administration’s image crisis.
When Sanusi first alleged that Nigeria had lost nearly to $50bn, Okonjo-Iweala initiated a tripartite meeting involving officials of the CBN and the petroleum ministry in order to "reconcile" discrepancies in crude oil revenue deposits. At the end of the first stage of the reconciliation process, she announced that only $10.8bn remained unaccounted for. Some analysts wondered why the Finance Minister has not been more forthcoming in explaining what happened to the $10.8bn she admitted was yet to be reconciled.
A source close to Okonjo-Iweala told Sahara Reporters that the minister had complained to her close confidants that she was upset for being questioned over funds that Alison-Madueke should be answering questions about.
According to another source, the image firm may have advised Okonjo-Iweala to take an aggressive line with the foreign media in addition to washing her hands clean of the scandal by backing an audit of the oil transactions.
In order to counteract the growing attacks in the foreign media, finance minister has decided to confront her critics.
This week, in a interview with BBC Will Ross, the minister came across as frustrated. Facing a barrage of tough questions from the reporter, the minister seemed to lose her cool as she implied that Sanusi was irresponsible in going public with the missing billions.
She also claimed that her ministry was carrying out due diligence and had informed local governments as well as state governments in the past about shortfalls in the NNPC’s lodgments of crude oil revenues. A source said her harsh tone in the interview reflected her frustration that many foreign analysts were portraying her as inept in handling the issue of the missing billions.
In the Financial Times article mentioned above Okonjo-Iweala tried to play down the damage that arose from the scandal of the missing billions and the firing of Sanusi. She claimed that the fundamentals of the Nigerian economy remain solid.
A source said the piece was part of the minister’s effort to douse the political heat that she and the Jonathan administration have faced. Even though the piece supported the "forensic” audit of the NNPC, her stronger contention that Nigeria’s economic future lies outside of the oil and gas sectors may be seen as a clever way of downplaying the necessity for a credible audit.
Another source in Abuja disclosed that the article showed that Okonjo-Iweala was trying to do a balancing act. On the one hand, she created the impression that the Nigerian economy has recovered fully from any instability caused by the outcry over the missing funds scandal and, on the other, she tried to make herself look focused on piloting Nigeria to greater economic heights.
However, the troubles for the administration as well as Okonjo-Iweala may be far from over as, according to Sahara Reporters, Sanusi on Tuesdat submitted an "explosive" letter to Jonathan. The letter is believed to be a response to recent government attacks on Sanusi's credibility and service at the CBN.