2023 presidency: Should Emefiele contest?

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Olu Fasan

Central Bank governors are 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 conservative, usually circumspect and circumscribed in what they say or do.

It is, therefore, absolutely unprecedented, utterly beyond the pale, for a Central Bank governor to be associated, even remotely, with nursing a presidential ambition, and with politicking, while still in office. Yet, that’s what is happening in Nigeria, a country where the rules and norms of civilised nations, the ethos of good governance, do not apply.

For over a year now, speculations have been rife, recently reaching fever pitch, that Godwin Emefiele, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, is interested in running for president in 2023. Several people and groups have spent hundreds of millions of naira on a proxy campaign for him. They flooded everywhere with campaign billboards and recently commissioned thousands of branded vehicles, emblazoned with Emefiele’s image.

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. It is hard to 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.

But anything is possible in Nigeria! Of course, Emefiele tacitly supports the proxy campaign, while lapping up the attention and adulation. Although Emefiele has not formally declared to run for president in 2023, the truth is that he has a presidential ambition. He 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 he not implicitly endorsing the proxy campaign, he should have strongly and unambiguously condemned the campaigners and their faceless financiers; he should have categorically and unequivocally disclaimed any interest in running for president in 2023. Instead, he issued weasel statements that can fool only the most gullible.

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 fate 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 fate 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”.

Last week, some newspapers cited a Harvard economist who said that if the APC zoned its 2023 presidential ticket to the South, Emefiele might “be the next Obasanjo”, meaning that he could become president without previously holding any elective national office. So, few are ignoring speculations about Emefiele’s presidential ambition; many in the media, academia and the general public believe that, fortuity allowing, he would run for president.

Here’s the rub. Emefiele is constitutionally entitled to run for president, but he can’t use his position as “Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria” to further that ambition. Several former Central Bank governors went on to hold political offices. In Nigeria, Clement Isong and, recently, Charles Soludo, became state governors years after leaving office as CBN governors. So, Emefiele can have political or presidential ambitions, but he cannot, directly or indirectly, pursue those ambitions as a sitting CBN governor.

Sadly, under his 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 of a national bank. A national bank is controlled by the state, lacks independence from political interference and routinely finances Federal Government deficits and projects. Consequently, the CBN has found itself having to indulge in deficit-financing by extending massive overdrafts to government; and propping up an inefficient agricultural sector with billions of naira, much of which do not benefit the real farmers.

By contrast, take the key indicators of economic management–inflation, employment, interest rate, exchange rate, economic growth –which most central banks really care about.

Recently, during the commissioning of the Dangote fertiliser plant, Emefiele gave an unconvincing speech, eulogising Buhari. “We will continue to work hard to protect your legacy and ensure that posterity remembers you for all you have done for our country,” he said.

Really? 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 and failed policy of import substitution.

Scholars are right: politically-ambitious Central Bank governors tend to please a powerful president. 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. Well, Emefiele comes across more as a politician, less as a central banker!

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