Monday, May 29

The Lady is not for Turning

Nigeria’s former finance minister wrote a book about her time in  government. It is a thinly veiled attempt to clean up her image.  

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala served as Nigeria’s finance minister twice since  the country’s return to democracy: first from 2003 to 2006 under  Olusegun Obasanjo and more recently, from 2011 to 2015, under Goodluck  Jonathan. Now she has written a book, published by an American academic  press, ostensibly about those experiences.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala comes from a family of academics. Her mother,  Kamene, was a renowned sociologist and her father, Chukwuka, an  economist (he is also a local king in the Delta region, and a former UN  official and government official in Ghana.) She had her elementary  education at the legendary St. Anne’s School Molete, which is  one-hundred and forty-nine years old. Then completed her secondary  education at the prestigious University of Ibadan International School.  She then proceeded to Harvard where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree  in Economics. She later obtained a PhD in Rural Economics and  Development from MIT. Prior to becoming Nigeria’s Finance Minister in  2003, she worked at the World Bank where she rose to become the Vice  President for Africa and later one of the several Managing Directors at  the Bank. Upon Nigeria’s return to democracy in May 1999, she became an  important figure in the shaping of neoliberal economic policies for the  new administration, first as an adviser to Obasanjo and later as Finance  Minister, where her office literally became an outpost of the IMF/World  Bank. She helped populate both Obasanjo and Jonathan’s administrations  with current or former employees of the World Bank/IMF and other  sympathizers of neoliberal economic policies. Many of these people later  constituted her kitchen cabinet. The neoliberal policies of the two  administrations she worked for were largely responsible for the selling  of national assets to individuals and cronies of the regimes in the name  of privatization and commercialization. It wasn’t surprising when  opposition to these policies became an important trope for the book that  chronicled Okonjo-Iweala’s tenure as Finance Minister in Nigeria.

There aren’t many books by African finance ministers on their tenure,  so her book would certainly elicit anticipation in some circles. The  book is dramatically titled Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines  and opens with a story of the kidnapping of Kamene Okonjo, which  Okonjo-Iweala blames on intimidation by those that were benefitting  financially from what she calls the “oil subsidy scam.” Her evidence:  The alleged kidnappers did not ask for money. In her telling, they  wanted her to announce on national radio and television that she was  resigning from her job as Finance Minister and returning to the United  States.

The kidnapping of Okonjo-Iweala’s mother is depicted as a game, which  makes jest of the general insecurity ordinary Nigerians confront on a  daily basis. The community where Okonjo-Iweala’s parents live and many  communities in Nigeria are known to have recorded many incidents of  kidnapping before and after the episode she described. This includes the  kidnapping of the king of a nearby Ubulu-Uku community, a senior  government official of the state, Professor Hope Eghagha, and the wife of retired Army General Oluwole Rotimi.

Kidnapping became rampant during the oil insurgency in the Delta and  continued into the present so it cannot be conclusively said that there  is a correlation between these acts of brigandage and the fight against  corruption. The only correlation is the general breakdown in law and  order as a result of the incompetency of the administration and the  overall socio-economic downturn resulting from the neoliberal economic  policies of the Obasanjo and Jonathan administrations that Okonjo-Iweala  helped shape.

The story about her mother’s kidnapping, instead of an up-close view,  is merely a device for four interrelated arguments to support the  book’s claim that fighting corruption is dangerous. The first of these  is the book’s suggestion that, Okonjo-Iweala’s anti-corruption campaign  resulted in the kidnapping of her mother; secondly, she claims that her  ethnicity warranted an opposition to her because some ethnic groups  presume that the office of the Finance minister is their birthright,  thirdly, Okonjo-Iweala’s feminist ideology warranted anti-feminist  opposition to her fight against corruption and finally that some  ideologues from the left were opposed to her anti-corruption crusade.  These are the reasons Okonjo-Iweala concludes that fighting corruption  in Nigeria is dangerous.

So far so good. However, what becomes clear, is that Okonjo-Iweala  sees every disagreement with her economic policies as an attack on her  person because of her gender, ethnic identity or her previous role as a  World Bank employee.

Nigeria has a subsidy regime that started with the administration of  General Yakubu Gowon in the early 1970s. The subsidy regime has been a  recurring decimal in the annals of oil politics in Nigeria during the  oil boom of that era and cannot be said to be a new thing as described  in the book. It is what every regime has had to grapple with over the  years. However, in the discussion of what she considers subsidy scam,  she discounts the larger issue that surrounds the subsidy regime. For  example, Nigeria imports refined oil for its local consumption. That  makes the local price of premium motor spirit susceptible to the  fluctuating oil market. The Obasanjo administration licensed private  individuals to build refineries and over 16 years later, none has been  built and nowhere was this stated in the book. Secondly, she argues that  the whole subsidy regime is a scam but never admits to the culpability  of the Jonathan administration and of course herself (the Coordinating  Minister of the Economy) to such a scam. Blame it on others seems to be  the fulcrum of the entire argument of the book.

Okonjo-Iweala borrowed straight from the neoliberal mantra that  government should get out of the way when she writes, at the start of  the book, that “The overwhelming majority of Nigerians are honest,  hardworking citizens who want what citizens elsewhere want—for their  government to provide peace, stability, and basic services and then get  out of their way so they can live their lives.” While the majority of  Nigerians want stability and peace, they also want a government that  serves their interest by providing social services such as education,  health and an economy that works for everyone, not the one that works  for a few as it is now.

Describing Nigeria as a troubled country without giving proper  context to why it is troubled fits into the prevailing narrative of  Africa as a troubled continent that needs rescue. Nowhere is this  narrative more prevalent than in the second chapter where she described  how she was “begged” to leave her work in the West (as a World Bank  employee) for the wilderness of Nigeria. This fits into the larger  narrative of the “savage-savior” metaphor aptly elucidated by Makau  Mutua in his book, Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique. It also fits the narrative of the white savior industrial complex aptly described by Teju Cole  as a situation where Africa—in this case Nigeria—is considered so  helpless that you would need some saviors from the West to come rescue  it from what I call the permanency of economic retardation.

This chapter also shows how she constituted a “rescue team” made up  mainly of present and former employees of International Financial  Institutions. The chapter never hid her preference for those with  Western experience and this speaks to her claim of being Nigeria’s  savior. In addition, she reconstructed the story of her being paid in  United States dollars in ways that suggest she voluntarily dropped the  idea of being compensated in dollars without disclosing that it was a  court judgment that stopped the payment and asked her to refund all  salaries paid to her in that amount to the government.  She had insisted on being paid in US dollars upon her assumption of  office as finance minister in 2003 with an annual salary of US$240,000  which is a violation of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers which  frowns against maintenance of a foreign account. It is also a violation  of the Certain Political, Public and Judicial Office Holders (Salaries  and Allowances, etc) Act No 6 of 2002 which prescribes a yearly salary  of N794,085.00 ($2185) for every minister of the Federal Republic of  Nigeria. However, she failed to mention how Obasanjo’s dissatisfaction  with her performance as Finance minister led to her being transferred to  the Foreign Ministry where she later resigned. Rather, she constructed a  story of resignation that never accounted for being transferred to  another ministry that she thought was beneath her. She also did not  disclose how she lobbied the Jonathan administration to return as  Finance Minister rather, she claimed that private sector leaders came to  beg her for the job. It is in this chapter that she actually began to  show how every constructive opposition to her economic policies were  seen as a personal attack on her. She singled out individuals such as  Omoyele Sowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters and Femi Falana,  a highly-respected lawyer in Nigeria as those who led the attack on  her. However, she never affirmed how many of those so-called attackers  merely pointed out the flaws in her economic policies, which were  detrimental to most Nigerians. While Okonjo-Iweala argued that Mr.  Falana singled her out for criticism. It is incontrovertible that the  same Mr. Falana actually fought alongside Omoyele Sowore and others for  the restoration of democracy in Nigeria. In the many years of military  rule in Nigeria (1985-199), Falana was incarcerated without trial  several times for speaking out against economic inequality and other  forms of injustice occasioned by neoliberal economic and political  practices in Nigeria. The same can be said for Omoyele Sowore who, as a  student activist in college, fought for the restoration of democracy.  Basically, the duo of Sowore and Falana had merely continued their  critique of economic policies that are detrimental to the wellbeing of  Nigerians, which Okonjo-Iweala claims are personal attack.

Even more interesting is the fact that the book chronicled  Okonjo-Iweala’s to and fro with Nigeria’s National Assembly in ways that  see the assembly as the opposition contrary to the spirit of the  constitution that sees the assembly as an independent organ. Every  invitation to the assembly to give account of the stewardship of her  ministry is considered an attack on her person such that the reader  might be convinced that she would rather serve under a dictatorial  government than a democracy. The National Assembly of Nigeria is  expected to provide an oversight on the executive arm, surprisingly; the  book seems not to recognize this constitutional role. Instead, the book  paints a picture of the national assembly as one of those who always  “attack” her. Painting the national assembly in this way suggests either  a lack of understanding of constitutional governance by Okonjo-Iweala  or a mere display of disdain for every criticism regardless where such  criticism comes from. Okonjo-Iweala writes the same way about the  governors of Nigeria’s 36 states as if the governors are expected to be  appendages to the federal government, especially the office of the  minister. For example, when the then governor of Edo state, Adams  Oshiomhole, complained about what he called the illegal withdrawal of  $2billion from the Excess Crude Account—an account operated by the  Federating States and the Central Government. Okonjo-Iweala opined that  Oshiomhole attacked her because she blocked him from obtaining a foreign  loan. To her, any state governor that criticizes her is automatically  seen as “attacking her person” regardless of the policy disagreements  that may have warranted such criticism. While I admit that the current  Nigerian system is not perfect and there are flaws in the National  Assembly as well as the 36 states, I also believe that respect for the  constitution is what creates a strong governance system in any society.

Furthermore, another argument made by her is the claim that, “there  were ethnic jingoists who disliked the idea of someone from my Igbo  ethnic group holding what they perceived as a powerful position that  they believed belonged to their own ethnic group” (107). This assertion  feeds into the prevalent narrative in Nigeria that a section of the  country, specifically the Hausa-Fulanis tend to dominate what is  considered to be “juicy” ministries and parastatals especially the  Finance Ministry. This is not exactly true because, since independence  in 1960, more southerners have held the position of Finance Minister  more than those from the North. For example, between October 1st 1960  and September 14, 2018 when Kemi Adeosun resigned as Finance Minister,  Nigeria have had 23 Finance ministers and only seven have come from the  North, the rest have been from the South including the first Finance  Minister (1960-1966), Festus Okotie-Eboh who is from the same Delta  state as Mrs Okonjo-Iweala.

There are some historical inaccuracies such as describing Goodluck  Jonathan as the first person from a minority group to become president  leaving out General Yakubu Gowon, the longest serving Nigerian leader  (1966-1973). Okonjo-Iweala says she was the first person to serve as a  coordinating minister of the economy leaving out Chief Obafemi Awolowo  who served as Vice-Chairman of the ruling council and Finance Minister  during the reign of Gowon and of course Ernest Shonekan who was  appointed by the Babangida Administration as Head of the Transition  Council overseeing the economy before Babangida was forced out of power  by popular protest in August of 1993 paving the way for Shonekan and  later Abacha to become Head of State.

Finally, it is hard to find any evidence of the fight against  corruption by Okonjo-Iweala in the entire book. She presided over the  economy under two administrations adjudged to be some of the most  corrupt in the history of the country. For example, electricity is a  major challenge in the country and the $16 billion that Obasanjo  administration under which Okonjo-Iweala served spent on the power  sector was mismanaged and power is still at the level it was before the administration came to power in 1999.  Over $32 billion was said to have been lost to corruption during the  Jonathan administration because state coffers were turned into personal  coffers by the president and his cronies and it is hard to fathom that a  Finance minister who coordinates the economy can feign ignorance of the  monumental fraud that took place under her watch.  At best, the book highlights how narratives can be reconstructed in  ways that turns principled opposition into personal attacks in an  attempt to provide cover for someone who might be seen as culpable in  the mismanagement of Nigeria’s wealth for about 16 years. If anything is  dangerous, it is not admitting to one’s culpability in the scheme of  monumental fraud in the history of Nigeria.

Omolade Adunbi,  is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan. He obtained his PhD in Anthropology and an MA in African Studies  (Politics and Political Economy) from Yale University. He earned his  undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the Ondo State University,  Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria.  He is the author of the book; Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria. Mr. Adunbi is a public commentator and political analyst. 

Copyright © Omolade Adunbi, Maroonsquare

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