* Central bank governor alleged $20 bln oil fraud
* President suspended governor on unrelated charges
* Several previous audits, graft probes ignored
By Joe Brock and Felix Onuah
ABUJA, March 12 Nigeria's president has
authorised a forensic audit of the national energy company, the
presidency said on Wednesday, after weeks of public uproar over
an alleged $20 billion in missing state revenues.
Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi wrote a letter last
September to President Goodluck Jonathan saying almost $50
billion in revenues from oil exports from January 2012 to July
2013 had not been remitted to the federation account, in a clear
violation of the law.
He lowered the estimate to $20 billion in testimony to a
Senate committee investigating the case last month, days before
he was suspended by Jonathan for what the president said was
unrelated "financial recklessness" and "gross misconduct" at the
central bank. Government sources and a wide spectrum of the
public believe his removal was politically motivated.
The Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has
repeatedly denied Sanusi's allegations and the presidency, which
says they are unfounded, has not responded until now to calls
for an independent audit.
Africa's biggest oil producer and the continent's
second-largest economy has a reputation for corruption but the
scale of the alleged oil graft is unprecedented and Sanusi is
the most high-profile figure to raise issues directly to the
Sanusi was an internationally respected central bank
governor and financial markets were rattled by his suspension
with the naira currency briefly dropping to a record low.
Nigeria's Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and a Senate
committee investigating the graft allegations have both called
for a forensic audit of NNPC since Sanusi presented evidence.
Jonathan's opponents say the suspension of Sanusi shows he
is soft on corruption, a year ahead of what is expected to be
the most closely fought presidential election since Nigeria
ended military rule in 1998.
"The Presidency wishes to reaffirm that Mallam Sanusi's
suspension has absolutely nothing to do with his unproven and
inconsistent claim," the presidency said, referring to Sanusi by
the title Mallam, given to learned Muslims.
"Mallam Sanusi's allegations are patently untrue. But
Government is making no effort to bury them as he falsely
claims," the statement said, adding that "reputable
international firms" would carry out the audit.
According to Sanusi's testimony, the biggest gap in
accounting is for $8.5 billion the NNPC says it retained from
revenues during the 19-month period to cover subsidies it was
owed on importing gasoline and kerosene.
A directive in 2009 by then President Umaru Yar'Adua, who
died in May 2010, had scrapped kerosene subsidies. Petroleum
Minister and NNPC chair Diezani Alison-Madueke acknowledged this
but told the senate committee they were still paid, contrary to
the law, to prevent hardship for millions of poor Nigerians.
NNPC says it buys kerosene at 150 naira ($0.91) a litre and
sells it to suppliers at 50 naira per litre. But the retail rate
is still above 150 naira, which Sanusi said proves the subsidy
is a racket to benefit chosen friends in the kerosene business.
"It is fine to have a forensic audit but I think it is
merely a way to keep us satisfied for a little while," Senator
Bukola Saraki, who is sitting on the investigating committee,
told Reuters this week.
"The minister of petroleum and of finance admitted there is
no subsidy on kerosene. Do we need to wait for a forensic audit
for the government to stop breaking the law?" Saraki added.
Several probes of NNPC since Jonathan won an election in
2011 have alleged widespread fraud inside what has been
described as one of the world's most opaque state oil companies,
but little has been done to change the way NNPC operates.
A probe in 2012 by the former head of Nigeria's
anti-corruption body, Nuhu Ribadu, recommended an overhaul of
NNPC because it lacked transparency in the way it sold oil,
wielded too much power and was a vehicle for corruption.
After public outcry, Jonathan ordered three white papers to
be written, analysing the report, but they were never produced.