BETWEEN SANUSI AND ISLAMIC BANKING

September 7, 2009

By Sonnie Ekwowusi

lamido sanusi

There are no dull moments in Nigeria. I beg your pardon, of course there are excruciating dull moments in Nigeria: when students are warming the seats at home and lending their minds to evil, there are indeed dull moments in the country. When academics who ought to be embroiled in academic research are embroiled in a never-ending war of attrition with the Federal government; when insecurity of lives in the country is increasing every day; when the much-vaunted electoral reforms are likely to be rigged in favour of one political party; when the country is still in darkness owing to power failure; when unemployed young graduates are forced to make a career in kidnapping, there are certainly many dull moments in the country. But there are no dull moments when we consider that at all times in this country there are burning issues thrown open in the public square for debate. The press, as usual, is providing the space. The convener of today’s debate is Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) who by now could pass for an iron bender. With possible Sanusi, nothing is impossible.

President Yar’Adua, in particular, must be grateful to Sanusi. Before Sanusi, the Yar’Adua government was perceived as a wobbling, non-performing government that could hardly bend a wick. When the people sang a dirge, the government refused to mourn; when the people broke out in exhilarating joy, the govern refused to dance; when the people shouted for help the government refused to hearken to their assistance. But since Sanusi mounted the saddle as the Central Bank Governor, the Yar’Adua government, whether for good or bad, has suddenly discovered its rhythm. For once the focus has changed. Before, many people were facing Aso Rock and shouting: “non-performing government”. Today they are pointing accusing fingers at the bank chiefs and shouting: “thieves”, “non-performing loans”.

Undeterred by criticisms, accusations and counter accusations against him, Sanusi has even gone ahead to announce that he has not finished with the country. He has vowed that by the time he finishes with his reforms, Nigerians will no longer recognize Nigeria as their country. At the time the people are complaining that they are being suffocated to death by his sanusization, Sanusi is still spitting fire and threatening to spew out more policies. Speaking recently in Kaduna at a Ramadan symposium organized by the Movement for Islamic Culture and Awareness (MICA), the Central Bank Governor stated that the global financial crisis had exposed the inadequacies of conventional banking system. He said that the Islamic financial institutions had proved to be resilient to the global meltdown because they were built on strong ethical principles of the Koran. He therefore said that, in recognition of the benefits of Islamic banking, the Central Bank had initiated actions to develop a regulatory and supervisory framework for Islamic banking in Nigeria to create the enabling environment to attract multi-billion dollars global Islamic finance to Nigeria and to enable Nigerians benefit from sharpie complaint banking services and products.

In one sense, the above proposition sounds meritorious. Some scholars readily attest that there is a link between faith and finance. When banks are dishing out loans to their customers their faith is anchored in the righteous disposition of their customers to repay the loan over time. Or, in their sheer exercise of religious faith, the depositor trusts that his money is fully secured in the bank, and conversely, the bank trusts that the borrower will repay the loan. Quoting James Suroweiecki’s write up in the New Yorker, Gary Anderson observes that the current global financial crisis started because a number of financial players abused trust and gave out loans to borrowers who were not qualified for loans. Consequently, this, according to Anderson, has given way to something more corrosive- fear and mistrust. Therefore, Islamic financial system, according to Sanusi can provide a credible alternative because it predicated on high moral principles. It is not prone to fraud. It engenders rapid economic growth.

Having said that, it is important to note that Islamic banking cannot in itself manufacture honest, ethical and hard-working bankers to be employed in our present dirty business environment. Nor can the Central Bank of Nigeria create these honest Nigerians by executive fiat or policy. So long as the employees of our banks – be it Islamic bank, Christian bank, pagan bank, free-thinkers-bank, occultist bank, or juju bank – are products of the same flawed institutions, lawlessness, dysfunctional families, it is difficult for them not to give in to the structures of corruption in Nigeria. Professor Robert George has persuasively made the points in his incisive piece: Making Business Moral. He says that a healthy business (healthy banking inclusive) cannot thrive without the pillars that hold society together. When, for example, the effective transmission of the virtues of honesty, civility, justice, moderation, self-restrain has failed at the family level, the most formidable banking system cannot promote those societal ethos we all cherish.

But even if there were virtuous men and women everywhere in Nigeria, we would have been still clamoured for the rule of law and good governance to coordinate the right human behaviour necessary for good business. Besides, the fact that Islamic banking system has worked in another country doesn’t mean that it would work in Nigeria.

Another important view is that Sanusi is merely taking advantage of the economic meltdown and collapse of ethical practices in the banking industry in Nigeria to promote Muslim solidarity in economic, social and political affairs. After all members of the Organization of Islamic Conference (O.I.C) ought to be members of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB). During the O.I.C debate in Nigeria, advocates of O.I.C argued that Nigeria stood a better chance of reaping more economic and financial benefits, including interest-free loans, technical assistance, Islamic banking etc., from belonging to IDB than belonging to the International Monetary Funds (IMF). While the debate was still raging, Nigeria was dramatically admitted as the 46th member of the O.I.C on January 9, 1986 in Morocco following an application and request to that effect by a Federal government delegation led by then Petroleum Minister Rilwanu Lukman. On or around August 5 1987, the then Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Sani Abacha, led a Nigerian delegation to hold talks with IDB President, Dr. Ahmed Mohammed Ali at the 2007 Haji on the admission of Nigeria as a member of IDB. Therefore since Nigeria is already a member of the O.I.C and IDB, Islamic banking system should be made to flourish in Nigeria.

The O.I.C debate, unfortunately, was organized during the military regime when one man put himself out as a dictator. But today Nigeria is supposed to be under a democratic government where policies are supposed to conform to the wishes of the people. Under our present democratic set-up, the state apparatus cannot be used to promote interests that only favour a particular group or creed. More importantly, considering our tragic political past, our commitment to the fundamental tenets of our 1999 Constitution should remain sacrosanct.

A well-educated Sanusi may know how to draw a competent distinction between purely economic policies from religious issues. But to the unlearned fundamentalists out there, anything remotely perceived as threatening to faith should be resisted by force. Any wonder the country keeps witnessing many religious riots. In 1980 a religious fundamentalist group called Maitatsine promoted one of the greatest religious riots in this country. In 1984 and 1985 similar religious uprisings erupted in several parts of the country. In March 1987, just shortly after Nigeria was unfortunately conscripted into the O.I.C, the country witnessed a violent uprising between Christians and Moslems. We are still counting the tragic costs of the recent Boro Haram riots. Therefore in making policies we should stay clear of anything capable of sowing the deed fear and suspicious in the minds of people.

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