LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) -- Nigeria's president on Thursday ousted the Central Bank governor who exposed billions of missing petrodollars, a move critics say is a warning to whistleblowers in the run-up to a hotly contested presidential election in Africa's biggest oil producer.
President Goodluck Jonathan accused internationally respected career banker Lamido Sanusi of "financial recklessness and misconduct," and officially suspended him just days before the governor reportedly planned on stepping aside.
The West African nation's naira currency immediately weakened in response.
Last year Sanusi reported that $50 billion worth of oil sold by the state's Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. had not been paid to the government. The Senate Committee on Finance last week ordered an independent forensic audit into the missing money, now said to amount to about $20 billion. The Finance Ministry said missing receipts recovered in an audit accounted for the rest of the missing money.
Jonathan had dismissed Sanusi's charges as "spurious" and has said that corruption is not among the biggest problems suffered in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of more than 160 million people.
On Thursday, Jonathan named a deputy governor to act in Sanusi's place but also immediately sent to Parliament the name of another banker he proposed as the new custodian of the nation's federal reserves, making clear that he has effectively fired Sanusi.
The reform-minded banker apparently planned a three-month leave of absence starting next month before stepping down when his five-year term expired in June, according to London-based senior analyst Murtala Touray of IHS Country Risk.
"We assess that President Jonathan's suspension of Sanusi is intended on the one hand to send a message to Sanusi's successor not to 'wash government's dirty linen in public,' and on the other to discredit Sanusi's report on the (missing) $20 billion," Touray told The Associated Press.
The opposition All Progressives Congress coalition said Jonathan's move against Sanusi sends "a strong signal to all Nigerians that it (Jonathan's administration) will not tolerate any exposure of corruption under any circumstance."
Sanusi, 52, who has spearheaded bank reforms and acknowledged making powerful enemies among vested interests in a country that Transparency International lists as one of the most corrupt in the world, could not immediately be reached for comment.
A dapper figure who wears signature bow ties, Sanusi said he received death threats and frequent warnings he would be fired after he took on bank CEOs who had stolen billions of deposits and who he said had bought political protection or were themselves politicians. He called his move, just after taking office in 2009, "a decision that would pitch us against powerful economic and political forces."
That was before he took on the powerful Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., which denies his charges of missing billions.
Sanusi has said corrupt vested interests keep what should be a wealthy country impoverished and are at the heart of 90 percent of the problems confronting Nigeria, from a northeastern Islamic uprising and deadly ethnic strife to a dearth of jobs, education and health care.
"We don't have development because vested interests continue to rape this country and take the money out, and the only way you're going to move from potential to reality is to stop preaching and ask yourself how can we overcome the fear of vested interests and how can we confront them," he told an audience of young people at a TedX forum in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, in August.
On Thursday, the naira dropped from 163 to 169 to the U.S. dollar when Jonathan's statement became public, financial analysts said. The Central Bank briefly stopped trade in its fixed income and bond market.
Economist Bismarck Rewane warned of "a very difficult time" for the naira and Nigeria's financial market in the near-term. In the long term, he said it raises questions about the future independence and autonomy of the Central Bank.
Such actions make investors jittery and encourage capital flight, political economist Adeola Adenikinju of Nigeria's University of Ibadan said, pointing to investors dumping the naira Thursday.
Rewane said the suspension from a position held in high reverence increases uncertainty as Nigeria prepares for a presidential election in February next year.
Regardless, Nigeria is expected to overtake South Africa as Africa's biggest economy this year, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund.
A statement from presidential adviser Reuben Abati said Jonathan has noted reports from the Financial Reporting Council and other investigating bodies indicating that Sanusi's tenure "has been characterized by various acts of financial recklessness and misconduct."
Local media had reported in December that Jonathan had demanded Sanusi resign, and that the governor had refused to leave before his tenure expired.
Nigerian accounts on Twitter hummed with the news, with many saying Sanusi was being punished for fighting corruption, and others hoping his suspension would lead him to making even greater revelations.
"When you fight corruption, corruption fights back," the Enough Is Enough Nigeria project tweeted.
On the Web:
Sanusi on confronting corruption: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjViGLJIU9g
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun contributed to this report from Abuja, Nigeria.
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