Nigeria shoots the messenger

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has suspended the governor of the country’s central bank, Mr. Lamido Sanusi, on charges of “financial recklessness and misconduct” and “far-reaching irregularities.” The dismissal followed by days Sanusi’s claim that $20 billion in oil revenues was missing from government accounts. The president’s insistence that the move had nothing to do with Sanusi’s whistleblowing is not convincing.

Nigeria is the world’s 12th-largest petroleum producer, the eighth largest exporter, and has the 10th-largest proven reserves. Petroleum accounts for 40 percent of Nigeria’s gross domestic product and 80 percent of government revenues. Understandably, then, Sanusi’s charge of widespread corruption and theft struck a nerve. Sanusi told a legislative committee that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) had failed to remit more than $1 billion a month over a 19-month period from January 2012 to July 2013. The NNPC said the allegations showed “little understanding of the technicalities of the oil industry.”

President Jonathan denied that even “one dollar should disappear,” although a similar investigation 18 months ago reportedly concluded that tens of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue was missing from 2002 to 2012. No investigation followed up on these allegations — or at least the reports have never been made public — and no prosecutions resulted.

Sanusi’s allegations come at a difficult time for the president. An increasingly violent Islamic insurgency has continued for nearly five years. Boko Haram is linked to al-Qaida and is considered by many to be one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups.

Nigeria holds elections next year and the enhanced scrutiny over finances — the petroleum minister is a close ally of the president — makes the usual electioneering more difficult and dangerous: In the last ballot, 500 people died during the campaign.

Nigeria is, for many people, on the cusp of emerging as Africa’s leading economy. Much of the optimism reflects a belief in the competence and capability of the Nigerian government. The notion that corruption is widespread and that the government is prepared to turn a blind eye will undermine that confidence.

Not surprisingly, there has been an outflow of currency since the dismissal of Sanusi and a sharp plunge in the value of the national currency. This is a self-inflicted wound that Nigeria cannot and should not have to afford.