Feb. 22, 2014
In 2011, I had the privilege of writing a letter to the recently returned Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on behalf of my boss. Despite being meticulously prepared, the letter was returned back for corrections. Astonishingly, the new Minister was refusing to read any letter that was not addressed to the “Coordinating Minister of the Economy.” To me, it seemed more like a desperate power grab by a barely literate politician than the behaviour one would expect of a Harvard-trained, internationally acclaimed economist, although I was reluctant to make that judgement at the time. Yet, this claim has been confirmed over time and is now common knowledge to civil servants who have had any recent contact with the Nigerian Finance Ministry.
Without a doubt, Madam Okonjo-Iweala has been a source of pride to Nigeria. She has broken the glass ceiling for Africans in general and women in particular. She has inspired us, Nigerian professionals, to believe that with hard work, dedication and some luck it is possible to rise to the highest echelons of a global institution and to occupy coveted positions in our country. For that we are grateful.
However, since that incident in 2011, it has become evident that something has radically changed about the Ngozi of the 2004-2007 era – the effective technocrat who was instrumental in negotiating Nigeria’s debt relief and passionately pursued President Olusegun Obasanjo’s reform agenda. With each passing day, it appears that the hitherto respectable World Bank economist has stopped trying to beat the bad guys, but has joined them. Before our eyes, Ngozi’s metamorphosis into a frighteningly egocentric, corruption-condoning and limelight-hugging Nigerian politician is almost complete. She adds to these, a uniquely dark skill of hoodwinking the international media. While Nigerians groan, Ngozi is celebrated abroad, interviewed by international magazines and sits smug on the plush seats at Davos pontificating on her achievements in Nigeria.
It is high time the international agencies and the media see beyond the facade of Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala’s past glories for what she has now become. These are not unsubstantiated claims of some imaginary opponents, but a factual submission from one who used to passionately defend and support her actions. My submission is centred on four broad reasons which are: (1) Mismanagement of the Nigerian economy (2) Vindictiveness and intolerance of criticism (3) Emotional manipulation of the international media (4) Overambitious personalisation of Nigeria’s reform agenda.
The Control and Management of the public finances of the Federation is the broad mandate of the Finance Ministry. This mandate cut across all sectors of the Nigerian economy, including budget preparation, designing fiscal and monetary policies and monitoring the country’s oil and non-oil revenue among others. Given these already enormous responsibilities, the only justification to assume a title of Coordinating Minister of the Economy (CME) would be to intimidate fellow ministers and possibly take over the role of the Ministry of National Planning which Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has effectively done.
Unfortunately, high sounding titles have not led to high quality delivery of her mandates. Take the national budget for example; this single most important policy document of government has become a source of national disgrace – tardily prepared, overbloated, and un-implementable. The current 2014 budget estimates signed off by Ngozi and submitted to the National Assembly include desktop computers for the Ministry of Education at N2 million each (over $13,000) and an allocation to Niger Delta militants of N54 billion, much higher than cumulative spending for Nigeria’s army, air force and navy.
One would assume the job description of a ‘coordinating minister’ includes providing a coherent and realistic budget for the government. Apparently not. Where budgets have passed, government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) have been crippled by consistent lack of releases. Expenditure warrants are sent in with no cash backing hampering the abilities of MDAs to implement projects in a timely manner and government contractors become overdressed beggars in Ministries, chasing their own resources. Dr. Precious Gbeneol, Special Adviser to President Jonathan on the MDGs, in a presentation in 2013 identified haphazard releases of the Finance Ministry as most responsible for Nigeria’s inability to achieve the MDGs. The impact is worse at the state level, with frequent stalemates at the Federal Account Allocation Committee (FAAC). Frivolous charges, unaccounted drops in revenue and archaic accounting systems from key revenue generators make a mockery of the entire revenue sharing process.
Nigeria’s rising debt profile, declining foreign reserves and depleting Excess Crude Account (ECA) will puzzle any keen watcher of the nation’s finances. In a time of booming global oil prices, the country’s financial indicators point downwards. The ECA – an aberration to the constitution has been maintained by the Federal Government due to economic arguments put forth by Mrs. Iweala has become a slush fund for managing political tensions between the Presidency and State governments. With a balance of about $11.5 billion in December 2012, the ECA has now declined to less than $2.5 billion as at January 17, 2014! Indeed, Nigeria’s financial accounts have a direct inverse relationship to political upheavals. If you doubt this, pay close attention to the above three indicators next time Governor Amaechi calls a meeting of the Nigeria Governors Forum, or House Speaker Aminu Tambuwal is reportedly in a meeting with the opposition. That the Finance Minister could be blatantly dipping into the nation’s resources to support political interventions is unprofessional and unbecoming. For Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to claim no knowledge that this is happening would be admitting ineptitude.
The Minister, and her aides, are quick to point to the impressive growth rates of Nigeria’s economy as evidence of her economic prowess. However anyone bothering to do a month’s research at the National Bureau of Statistics would exercise caution in subscribing to these claims. The Nigerian economy has grown in spite of the actions of the Minister and not because of any targeted policy action resulting from the ‘brilliance’ of Mrs. CME. A deep analysis into the drivers of growth limits any attribution to policies of the Finance Ministry. The economy has grown because of the hard work of Nigerians who have developed a knack for succeeding against all odds despite the artificial obstacles frequently put in their way- a key example being Nollywood. The non-oil sectors seem to be rising faster than the oil sector due to a drop in oil production and rampant oil theft rather than any conscious diversification policy. In fact rather than provide growth generating policies, the Finance ministry has focused on protecting entrenched interests and de-industrialising key sectors. It is poignant to note that the Nigeria Customs Authority recently raised the alarm that the country had lost over N1.7 trillion ($10.3 billion) to the retrogressive waivers granted by the Finance Ministry. Waivers have been granted for frivolous items including bullet proof luxury cars, religious books and kitchen utensils signed off by Minister Okonjo-Iweala disregarding the real sectors that require them.
Perhaps the most damning indication of Ngozi’s uncoordinated incompetence is the ongoing saga of an unaccounted $20 billion oil revenues from the oil corporation, the NNPC. That the Finance minister can go to bed at night knowing that this heist happened under her watch and she has still not resigned or been jailed is a uniquely Nigerian anomaly. Ngozi’s culpability has drawn ire even from former close friends. Past World Bank Vice President and member of Nigeria’s economic team during the Obasanjo years, Madam Oby Ezekwesili has publicly criticized Madam Iweala’s role in the unremitted funds. As a Minister of Finance, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala is mandated to “monitor the oil and non-oil revenue of the country” for which she has failed woefully. Her added role as coordinating Minister surely goes even further! That a coordinating Minister would be unaware of such colossal losses reeks of incompetence. And surely Ngozi is not incompetent, or is she? Well she is either incapable of her job or was in the know and thus culpable.
VINDICTIVENESS AND INTOLERANCE OF CRITICISM
Over the course of her work, Dr. Okonjo Iweala has gained a notorious reputation for taking no prisoners. She ferociously hunts anyone who questions her methods or sincerity. In 2013, after writing a less than flattering article on the Minister, Yushau Shuaibu got an unexpected call from the Ngozi herself- a rare honour on the wrong issue- she proceeded to dress him down. A few weeks later, Mr. Shuaibu was summarily dismissed from a 25 year civil service career, for daring to speak out on the all-powerful Minister, he is currently in court challenging this Sicilian style retribution. In-country journalists have subsequently gotten the hint, with only a few brave reporters still going down this path. Similarly, several Nigerians who dared ask her probing questions at international events have reported receiving a scathing tongue-lashing from her.
So intolerant is she about critical reports by Nigerian newspapers that in a recent TEDx talk delivered in London, rather than the inspirational speech participants were expecting, Dr. Iweala dragged the young audience to the gutters of Nigerian politics. She went off on a tangent ranting against the Nigerian media, particularly The Punch for attacking her personally and for being opposed to reform because the media dared to question her questionable waivers. For theatrical effect, she reminded listeners that even her mother was kidnapped by powerful anti-reform vested interests although the kidnappers as widely reported were her father’s former staff. Alas this was quintessential Ngozi at her Nollywood best, playing the victim yet again!
In a recent parliamentary inquiry at Nigeria’s energetic House of Representatives, Ngozi’s acting skills were in full display as she tried to emotionally blackmail the committee, accusing them of being disrespectful, to the extent of releasing a doctored clip of the proceedings. Were it not for the original longer clip available from Premium Times, what really happened would have been obscured. Her propaganda machinery even went as far as playing the gender-discrimination card against the all-male committee. Thankfully, most Nigerians who followed the incident refused to fall for the trickery.
An effective manipulation strategy perfected by Ngozi is a pre-emptive mentioning of corruption in order to project the image of one who identifies the problem first. She does this when she senses a growing momentum by the public against corruption acts which she otherwise condones. This has happened on at least three occasions including the fuel subsidy corruption saga, ongoing oil theft and most recently at the TEDx talk in London, she alluded to corruption in elections financing. By mentioning such an issue to the press, for instance, giving estimates of 400,000 barrels of crude oil stolen daily, Ngozi cleverly distances herself from acts she deliberately overlooks, while creating an erroneous public perception that she is the lone and ‘brave reformer’ swimming against the tide of rancid venality.
One wonders why Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is so ruthless about projecting this squeaky clean super hero image to the detriment of free speech. The answer lies in who Dr. Okonjo-Iweala actually considers her constituents. With growing disdain for the ordinary Nigerians, professionals and even her ministerial colleagues, Ngozi has always found it easier to mingle and profess her ‘love’ for Nigeria, with the international community. She spares no time or resources in attending any conference at Harvard, New York, Davos or Oxford explaining her lone efforts to ‘reform’ Nigeria. Yet, she is hardly seen communicating her policies at the University of Ibadan, Ahmadu Bello University, and the Lagos Business School not to mention everyday Nigerians.
Consequently, Ngozi has invested significant resources ruthlessly suppressing any adverse news reports that could be seen by the international community. A well-oiled and cunning propaganda machinery run with her media assistant, Paul Nwabuikwu as the front, and a network of highly paid international media consultants at the back room, assures that the true picture of Madam Okonjo-Iweala is hardly seen.
OVERAMBITIOUS PERSONALISATION OF NIGERIA’S REFORM AGENDA
With a consistent knack for wanting to outshine the master, Ngozi seems to have forgotten Robert Greene’s first law of power. This is perhaps the single reason why former President Obasanjo summarily dispatched her to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2006. With the current administration, she has carved a niche for being first to claim the glory on any positive initiatives at the expense of other hardworking colleagues and quickly distancing herself from any negatives. This personal policy of fair-weathered friendship leaves the President vulnerable to consistent scorn from Nigerians and the international community while Ngozi scoops up all accolades.
Even more indicative of Ngozi’s crass opportunism is the recent revelation in a book by former FCT Minister Nasir El-rufai in which he details how Dr. Okonjo-Iweala flew into Abuja all the way from Washington DC hoping to become General Buhari’s running mate in the 2011 elections- to run against President Jonathan. Shortly after that episode, she was appointed as Nigeria’s Finance Minister. No sooner did she have this post however, than she was scheming to be President of the World Bank, expending Nigeria’s financial and political capital for her own personal gains.
Effectively therefore, being Nigeria’s CME is second choice, reaffirming her superiority to ordinary Nigerians and her Ministerial colleagues. Her next move is rumoured to be a bid for the Presidency of the African Development Bank, a position also being eyed by outgoing Governor of the Central Bank, Sanusi Lamido with some believing the ongoing altercation between the two is a proxy war for this upcoming contest.
I have found myself frequently asking if this is the same Ngozi we admired on the pages of newspapers between 2004 and 2007 or whether all along the power-hungry, egoistic and vindictive Nigerian politician she tries so hard to distance herself from is her true self. In searching for answers I picked up the Minister’s latest book on her experiences during the Obasanjo years titled “Reforming the Unreformable”- ignoring that the title itself reeked of arrogant self-promotion. Reading through, I realised the preponderance of the word “I”. A word search astonishingly showed over 5,000 mentions of the word “I” in the book. It’s amazing that anyone who led an economic “team” could be so self-absorbed. I also recalled that Ngozi’s one condition for joining the Obasanjo government was how to maintain her World Bank salary to which subsequently her Nigerian salaries were dollarized, and that of joining President Goodluck’s cabinet was that she would be “Coordinating Minister.” I wondered why her condition would not be a tolerance for zero corruption, or that as mandated by the constitution, all revenues must be paid to federation account. As President Jonathan’s first term, comes to an end, and possibly the end of his administration as well, this will hopefully be Minister Ngozi’s last ditch attempt at using Nigeria to build her international profile. We will wish her good luck in her departure and what will surely be the title of her next book; “Coordinating the Uncoordinate-able”
Samuel O. Oluyemi is a financial and emerging markets consultant based in London. He can be reached on [email protected]