Tweaking CBN Act, NASS must tread with caution, By Chisom Adindu

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The ongoing effort by the National Assembly to tinker with the Central Bank of Nigeria’s Act, 2007, has been generating heated debate within the polity.

The concern has been the rationality of the exercise. This effort is spearheaded by two distinguished senators, Senators Steve Karimi and Darlington Nwokocha.

The bills are – ‘A Bill to Amend the Central Bank of Nigeria Act 2007, and Matters Connected Therein’, and An Act to Amend the Central Bank (establishment) Act 2007 to Make the Central Bank More Transparent and Accountable in its Operations and to Ensure Enhancement of its functions and for Connected Matters’.

The crux of the two amendments already consolidated by the Senate is the ban on the CBN governor and his deputies from partisan politics, reconstitution of the CBN Board; subjection of CBN staff renumeration to the Salaries and Wages Commission; and ceding the position of the Board Chairman to a person outside the CBN. Also proposed prohibition of use of foreign currency in local transactions. Until this proposal, the governor doubles as the board chairman.

The preoccupation of the sponsors of the bills is to enhance transparency and efficiency of the Central Bank of Nigeria and to strip its governor of certain powers. The Senate Committee on Banking and Finance is saddled with the responsibility of reviewing and working on these bills for the Senate to take a position. Whatever the expectation of the sponsors, it is important that the National Assembly does not in a spasm of emotion erode the independence of the Bank. CBN Act 2007 had settled this.

It was common knowledge that the immediate past CBN governor’s hiatus and unprofessional conduct by engaging in partisan politics may have warranted this quest. His action was an infraction and antithetical to his oath of office. It was also against the norms of central banking ethics. Anger against a rare singular infraction should not be used as an excuse to cripple a vital organ of government as the CBN. It amounts to throwing the baby away with the bath water.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper titled: The Role of Board Oversight in Central Bank Governance: The Legal Design Issues describe the Central Banks as a public law institution established to fulfill essentially sovereign functions delegated to them by the State. It admitted that certain central bank laws explicitly prohibit certain operations. Continuing, the paper said, for a central bank to be effective, it must enjoy a high level of autonomy vis-à-vis both political institutions and private economic interest. This autonomy it enumerated as: institutional, functional, personal, and financial. Institutionally, it said the central bank should not be influenced by the state or private third parties in its decision-making in the context of the performance of its functions, e.g., through ministerial instructions. Functional points to its capability to implement its functions without direct governmental interference, and Personal ensures that key decisions makers of the central bank (Governor and members of the Executive Board, Monetary Policy Committee and Oversight Boards) are autonomous from political and private economic interest. The Financial entails the capability of the bank to pursue its mandate by way of the financial means required to do so (the emphasis is mine).

Banning the CBN governor and his deputies from partisan politics is a good proposal and well approved. But to appoint/impose an outsider as the chairman of the board other that its governor is incongruous with global central banking practice. Typical of our clime, as being proposed, will not augur well for a critical institution as the CBN. The infraction of its former governor – highly condemned – is not an excuse to deal a fatal blow on the bank. It amounts to killing a fly with a sledgehammer.

Subjecting its staff salaries to an external body violates the financial independence of the bank. Infractions committed by its former governor have nothing to do with staff welfare. There are other organs of government earning far higher than the CBN staff, yet the legislators turned the blind eye. Why are all eyes on the CBN? Are the Nigeria National Petroleum Plc staff salaries a subject of scrutiny by the National Salaries and Wages Commission? The Debt Management Office (DMO), Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC), and many others. It is public knowledge that the staff of some of these agencies earn fantastically higher (excluding other perks) than the CBN staff.

The Central Bank of Nigeria, like its peers, is the heart of the monetary system of the country. Nigeria’s economy is influenced heavily by the actions it takes, thus, any spasm of irrational decisions to alter or whittle what international investors and global partners would see as an erosion of the Bank’s independence, will further hurt the already fragile economy. It was the Central Bank of Nigeria during the COVID-19 pandemic that ensured the stability of the economy while other organs of government were at a loss on what to do. The CBN should not be politicized. What happened under Godwin Emefiele was a rash decision that should be treated in isolation.

Amending the Act is not investor friendly, and it should be jettisoned. It will also encumber the effectiveness of monetary policy, and once the institution is seen as an appendage of the political class, there will be loss of faith and confidence in the economy. Ultimately, the economy will suffer for it.

Mr. Uche Tochukwu, a financial expert, said tweaking the CBN Act now, just because of what happened under Godwin Emefiele will hurt the economy and the integrity of the CBN. He welcomed the decision of the lawmakers to ban the governor and his deputies from partisan politics but frowned at appointing an outsider as the Bank’s Board Chairman. He said it is an aberration. Tochukwu called the attempt to subject the CBN staff salary to the Salaries and Wages Commission as meddlesomeness. What about their own opaquely fatty allowances the public has decried? Doing that, they advised, will kill the morale of the staff. Are we even sure the staff are earning fantastically, he asked?

The legislators should get serious with other national pressing issues in the economy rather than tampering with the CBN Act. Dr. Babatunde Adisa, an economist, expressed this. He said, globally, independence of central banks is high advocacy, why is our own legislators thinking of reversing the CBN gear of progress. He said those advocating for the weakening of the CBN governor’s power or administration of the institution are not in tune with reality.

Thus, the National Assembly should be guided as posterity will not forgive them if they are resolute on this unprofitable voyage.

● Chisom Adindu wrote in from Umuahia, Abia State.

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