persona non grata

The rise and fall of Nigeria’s Godwin Emefiele: From luxury jets and exotic beaches to detention

By Eniola Akinkuotu

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Posted on June 13, 2023 08:41

Godwin Emefiele, Nigeria’s new central bank governor, speaks during his first media briefing at the central bank headquarters in Abuja
Godwin Emefiele, Nigeria’s new central bank governor, speaks during his first media briefing at the central bank headquarters in Abuja, June 5, 2014. Emefiele said on Thursday he would seek to gradually lower interest rates for the first time in over two years, abandoning the hawkish monetary policy of his ousted predecessor that cut inflation to single digits. REUTERS/stringer

Godwin Emefiele was detained by police over the weekend. We chart the rise and fall of a man whose decisions touched the lives of over 200 million people. 

On 4 August 2021 – the day of his 60th birthday – Emefiele felt like he was on top of the world. Bank CEOs, captains of industry and state governors placed adverts in notable newspapers to shower him with encomiums.

In his tribute, President Muhammadu Buhari said: “As governor of Nigeria’s apex bank, you have rendered selfless service to your country at a most challenging period of our economic development, and I salute your commitment, passion and doggedness.”

He capped his diamond jubilee by flying out family and friends on a private jet to an all-exclusive party in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which is known for its numerous beach resorts and golf courses that have played host to superstars like Jay-Z and Beyonce. Some of Nigeria’s wealthiest businessmen attended the party.

Emefiele never boarded passenger planes, preferring to fly luxury private jets, which were one of the perks of office. In June 2020, when the Nigerian government imposed a lockdown and shut the airspace to passenger planes at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Emefiele flew out his wife and two children to London, a development that drew the ire of the public.

Despite such controversies, Buhari constantly had Emefiele’s back, even conferring one of Nigeria’s most prestigious honours – the Commander of the order of the Federal Republic (CFR) – on the central bank governor on the eve of his last day in office as president.

In a new video that has gone viral on social media, Emefiele is seen being bundled into a private jet. This time around, he is without his many aides, but is instead escorted by armed security officials acting on the order of the newly inaugurated president, Bola Tinubu, to arrest, investigate and possibly prosecute Emefiele.

Humble beginnings

Unlike his predecessor who was born into royalty, Emefiele was born without a silver spoon. In an interview with ThisDay newspaper in 2021, he recalled how his parents struggled to see him through school.

“Growing up, my parents recognised that the only way to brighten up my chances for a better future was to provide me with a good education. I witnessed their toils as they struggled to pay my school fees, sometimes, using proceeds from a small palm oil plantation we cultivated in our home town. I sympathised with their inability to sufficiently support me through those periods despite all the luxuries some of my peers had,” he said.

Emefiele attended his primary and secondary school in Lagos where he learnt how to speak the Yoruba language fluently, even though he is an ethnic Igbo from Delta State.

In the interview, he said he initially intended to study medicine, but decided to change his mind at the last minute. Emefiele eventually gained admission into the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where he studied banking and finance, graduating in 1984 and obtaining a masters’ degree in 1986.

Emefiele became a university teacher at his alma mater and also at the University of Port Harcourt before venturing into banking full time.

The banker

In 1990, a 39-year-old banker, Jim Ovia, established Zenith Bank and recruited his kinsman – Emefiele – into his team. Recalling the early years, Ovia stated in his birthday tribute to Emefiele that he was a man whose loyalty was never in doubt.

Ovia, who is now widely regarded as the godfather of Nigerian banking, said: “When I set out to establish Zenith Bank, Godwin Emefiele was one of the first persons I invited to join me on what has turned out to be an incredible journey. He was loyal to me as a friend and direct boss as well as to the ideals of the bank.”

Emefiele was able to worm his way into the heart of the president and the tiny cabal around him that made sensitive state decisions.

Emefiele quickly rose through the ranks, heading various departments at the bank and then rising to the position of executive director.

In 2010, the CBN introduced a policy which stated that no bank CEO should serve more than 10 years in office. With Ovia having served as CEO for 20 years, he decided to step down and anointed Emefiele as his successor.

By now, the bank had become one of Africa’s largest financial institutions with over $24bn in assets and shareholder funds of over $3bn.

Central Bank

In 2014, after the controversial ouster of CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido, President Jonathan set about looking for a cool tempered central bank governor. He reportedly offered the job to Ovia who in turn recommended his protégé.

Emefiele was subsequently nominated for the job subject to the approval of the Senate. During his screening, he laid out his vision for the apex bank where he stated that he was averse to the devaluation of the naira, but promised to keep the exchange rate stable. This would be the cornerstone of Emefiele’s nine years in office.

Barely a year into his tenure, President Jonathan lost his re-election bid and Buhari was inaugurated. Despite not being a politician, Emefiele was able to worm his way into the heart of the president and the tiny cabal around him that made sensitive state decisions.

His closeness to this cabal would earn him a second term in office, a development which had eluded almost all of his predecessors. They also protected him from arrest and investigation. His closeness to Buhari’s cabal would, however, undermine the autonomy of the apex bank as his tenure was riddled with scandals of illegal recruitments at the bank as well as the unauthorised ways and means of lending among others.

Exchange-rate crisis

The exchange rate crisis dogged Emefiele’s nine years in office. Despite advice from financial institutions to devalue the country’s currency, which had taken a beating due to a drop in global crude oil prices as well as a reduction in local production, Emefiele remained adamant.

He introduced about 11 initiatives, which were all targeted at keeping the naira stable and ensuring FX liquidity, but they all failed. On his watch, the naira fell on the parallel market from N171/$1 to N750/$1 on the parallel market on the day he left office.

On the official market, the naira also took a beating, falling from N164/$1 to N461/$1. However, most businessmen lacked access to FX at the official rate. This further widened the gap between the official and the parallel market rate.

This disparity between the official and parallel market rate scared away investors even as Foreign Direct Investment fell by over 200% with many foreign businessmen expressing frustration with repatriating their funds. International airlines claimed that over $840m was stuck in the system and this forced some airlines to quit, including Emirates.

Worse still, it is alleged that only Emefiele’s cronies got FX at the official rate, many of whom became overnight millionaires through arbitrage.

Agricultural reforms

However, Emefiele’s supporters argue that his tenure was not all gloomy. As governor of the apex bank, Emefiele, in line with Buhari’s agricultural policy, introduced the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme.

Emefiele said that through the programme, a total of N1.09trn ($2.3bn) was disbursed to 4.6 million smallholder farmers cultivating or rearing 21 agricultural commodities.

The central bank governor claimed that through this intervention, Nigeria had stopped importing rice and had become the continent’s largest producer of the staple.

Ahead of the 2023 presidential poll, there was a massive campaign for Emefiele to contest in the APC primary against Bola Tinubu, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and several other notable politicians. The farmers who had benefited from Emefiele’s intervention reportedly purchased the N100m presidential form for him.

At first, Emefiele rejected the idea because Nigerian law bars the governor of the apex bank from engaging in “other activities”. However, he secretly approached a court where he sought an order that would permit him to run for the presidency without resigning. Despite this controversy, President Buhari ignored calls to boot him out of office. After losing in court, Emefiele stayed away from politics.

Naira redesign

For Tinubu and his allies, the last straw that broke the camel’s back was Emefiele’s decision to introduce a controversial naira redesign policy in election season.

The main objective of the policy was to tackle counterfeiting, reduce money laundering and vote buying. Even though the new notes were not widely available, he insisted that the old notes would cease to be legal tender by 31 January.

This scarcity of money deepened hunger and sparked riots in many parts of the country as banks were burnt down while ATMs were vandalised by frustrated bank customers. Afraid that this could affect the ruling party’s chances at the polls which were a few weeks away, Tinubu and some governors of the ruling party reached out to Emefiele and Buhari to suspend the policy, but the duo refused to budge.

Persona non grata

After winning the keenly contested poll, it had become clear that Emefiele would be treated as a persona non grata by the Tinubu administration. Tinubu’s inaugural speech, wherein he rubbished Emefiele’s naira redesign policy and exchange rate regime, was already a signal of what was to come.

On 9 June 2023, Emefiele was suspended by the president and then arrested by the secret police for alleged economic sabotage, terrorism financing and abuse of office, bringing his tenure to a disgraceful end.

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