Africa

Nigeria's iron lady takes on fraudsters

  • 1 July 2010
  • From the section Africa
Arunma Oteh
Image caption Ms Oteh faces a legal action questioning her qualifications

Arunma Oteh, the woman tasked with the unenviable job of policing Nigeria's financial world, has a warm smile and a piercing stare.

"Wash sales; market rigging; pumping and dumping shares," she says listing the inventive and multi-layered abuses rampant in Nigeria's capital market.

"Any infraction will be punished," she told the BBC.

Ms Oteh, Nigeria's Securities and Exchange Commission boss, took up the post in January, bringing with her a tough surveillance and enforcement regime.

"We expect to charge the 200 entities and individuals involved," the financial regulator says quietly.

"We will file civil charges, and criminal charges, where necessary."

Name and shame

Last year, as major banks veered close to collapse, the government was forced into a $4bn (£2.67bn) bailout of nine lenders.

The central bank governor carried out a forensic cull - the so-called "Friday massacre" - sacking management teams at eight banks.

As the stock market fell, it became apparent some stockbrokers were involved in the scandal - collaborating in abuses ranging from insider share dealing to market manipulation and share price fixing.

Now Ms Oteh wants illegally gained profits made on the stock market to be "disgorged".

"We will restitute [restore lost money to] investors," she says.

"Local and international investors need to understand that things have changed."

Image caption A confidential US report details malpractice at the Nigerian Stock Exchange

Working closely with the US financial authorities, Ms Oteh plans to name and shame the individuals and finance companies that contributed to a $50bn crash.

Many people have lost their life savings.

"They [investment companies] spoke to me eloquently, but now I realise there were sharp practices," says Aruna Bawa, an accountant who lost nearly three quarters of his retirement plan.

"I should have been slowing down at my age. Now I am forced back to work," he says.

"I struggle long hours to try to rebuild my savings."

Insolvent stockbrokers

In April, a team from the US Securities and Exchange Commission compiled a confidential report detailing lax oversight at the Nigerian Stock Exchange and the financial regulators.

It details cases of bribery inside the Stock Exchange.

The report describes "dysfunctional" enforcement, "complicated and entrenched governance problems", "clear instances of insider trading and market manipulation that resulted in no action", and "woefully inadequate" surveillance.

And it says between 60% and 75% of Nigeria's stockbrokers are technically insolvent.

Ms Oteh agrees that regulation has not been tight enough in the past.

But a spokesman for the Nigerian Stock Exchange declined to comment on the report.

"It is very likely there are huge losses still to come," says economist Bismarck Rewane, of Financial Derivatives, a finance research and analysis firm.

"The day that ordinary investors try to retrieve their assets, and find them contaminated, will be an unpleasant day."

'Laughable'

And repairing the damage is not easy.

Insiders in the financial world describe an ugly fight-back aimed at Ms Oteh and her plans for tougher oversight and more transparency.

"Oteh faces severe resistance," said one economist, asking not to be named.

"It's coming from very influential, powerful individuals. It is a patronage-intensive society, and their influence extends well into government."

Just months into the job, Ms Oteh faces a legal action, questioning her qualifications.

"It's laughable," says Ms Oteh, a former vice-president of the African Development Bank with a Harvard MBA.

"It shows they're really desperate to try and undermine reform.

"It can only be people who are desperate, who are looking for ways to scuttle reform."

But she says she will not give up.

"What gives me comfort is that the President, Goodluck Jonathan, is behind us. It's what he believes in.

"That makes me even more determined."

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