04 Jan 2015

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala And A People's Narrrative / Kalu Ojah / The Guardian, Nigeria

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala And A People's Narrative / Kalu Ojah / The Guardian, Nigeria
4 January 2015

As a close follower of Nigerian public discourse from the diaspora, I was especially drawn to the piece titled "Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Nigeria's Iron Lady" by Adekeye Adebajo, published in The Guardian of September 25, 2014. It was a review of Reforming the Unreformable (2012), a book written by Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy. It effectively crystallised the book's message and acknowledged Okonjo-Iweala's impressive outing during its launch in Cape Town, South Africa, in March 2013.

However, Adebajo's views on the book were laced with his personal opinions about the minister's performance and personality. I regard the censorious tenor of those opinions as a flaw in Adebajo's otherwise brilliant piece. And I think the flaw is worsened by Adebajo's innuendos, factual errors and rehashed false accusations against the Minister.

Also, the ill-will, toward Okonjo-Iweala, that I regret to associate with Adebajo's piece becomes apparent from his question: "Will Nigeria's Iron Lady fall on her sword if these funds are not properly accounted for?" Here is a hint, I think, that Adebajo's ultimate mission was to prophesy the demystification of his own creation — an "Iron Lady" out of Okonjo-Iweala — and conjure a spectacle of her eventual fall amid the rumbling of false allegations whose repetition by her detractors seems to invest with credibility in their view, as if a lie told repeatedly becomes truth.

Incidentally, Adebajo had said of the funds for which he more or less anticipates or predicts Okonjo-Iweala's fall: "In February 2014, the governor of Nigeria's Central Bank, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, blew the whistle on an alleged $12-20 billion in missing funds from the accounts of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Okonjo-Iweala investigated and noted that the missing amount was closer to $10.8 billion, demanding a forensic audit of the NNPC." It should also be noted, at least for a balance of perspective, that the said Governor of Nigeria's Central Bank actually mentioned three different figures — namely, $49.8 billion, $12 billion, $20 billion — as the same missing funds, and that his continuous revision of the figure, an indication that he was not sure of his facts, undermined his own credibility, and should be a source of personal embarrassment even to his supporters, if they are open-minded.

What the likes of Adebajo have refused to acknowledge is that the so-called "missing" funds could be the result of faulty bookkeeping which may be straightened out with the cooperation of the relevant agencies including the one headed by Adebajo's "whistleblower" who unfortunately blared out embarrassingly discordant tunes from his whistle and made himself subject to suspicion of politically motivated ill-will against the very system he was serving. And in a country where an occupant of the exalted office of the Governor of the Central Bank can err repeatedly in making an allegation of missing public funds — for each revised figure by Sanusi implied his admission that his previous figure was erroneous — others might also err in various other ways including keeping records of financial transactions. I am not making an excuse for such errors. I am prodding a recall that to err is still human, and that this applies to whoever heads or once headed the Central Bank of Nigeria as well as those the person may choose to traduce.

This points to what I see as the need for us Nigerians to change our narrative of our public servants from something defined by sentimentality and partiality to truth to something guided by fairness, neutrality, and respect for facts. And speaking of fairness, if one expects anyone to fall on their sword under the given circumstances, should it be the minister who demanded for a forensic audit with the apparent intention to reach the root of the matter and establish the facts, even though the "missing" funds are not traceable to her or her agency. The fair question — should Adebajo wish to pose it — would be if Okonjo-Iweala should be sanctioned if she was found culpable in connection with the "missing" funds. But conjuring a spectacle of her fall without the certainty of such culpability, as Adebajo has done, bespeaks what we Nigerians refer to as the Pull Down Syndrome — the cynical tendency of some of our citizens to desire and work for the down fall of their fellow citizens even without justification.

Now, for some of Adebajo's more curious indictments of Okonjo-Iweala and my responses: "She received much blame for the bungled efforts to eliminate oil subsidies in 2004 and 2012, underestimating the widespread anger and cynicism of the Nigerian public towards a corrupt and corpulent political class that was not trusted to spend, in the public interest, any surpluses resulting from removing oil subsidies," says Adebajo.

I respond that no country with a mix of about 70-80 percent of its budget perennially allocated to recurrent spending, relative to crumbs apportioned to capital expenditure, would muster any form of sustainable economic growth and development. So, a Minister of Finance who identifies the main culprit in such dysfunctional budgeting — i.e., oil subsidy and the attendant huge graft due to over-invoicing, etc., — and takes steps to eliminate such, ought to be commended, especially as the minister's antecedents suggest that she would ensure productive use of the public funds recovered in the process.

Also, "Her 'second coming' has, however, not proved to be as messianic as the first, confirming the observation that there are no second acts in life," Adebajo affirms. To which I should simply say that I am not aware of Okonjo-Iweala having ever claimed the status of a messiah. And I would add that Okonjo-Iweala's role in conceptualising and establishing the Excess Crude Account (ECA) and the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) in order to encourage savings and sustainable development showed remarkable foresight, especially if we consider the role the reserve from the ECA played during the global economic downturn of 2008-2010 and imagine the positive role the SWF can play in countering the effects of the imminent revenue shrinkage from the recent fall in oil price and similar developments in the future.

Adebajo also said of Okonjo-Iweala: "The great debt deal — the marquee achievement of Okonjo-Iweala's first term — is being reversed under her very nose as Nigeria's external debt rose to $9.38 billion and its domestic debt to 8.9 trillion naira by June 2014." On the contrary, having noted the curiosity of Adebajo stating one kind of our national debt in (US) dollars and the other in the much weaker Naira, I see no wrong in a country incurring external debt for economic growth and development purposes, provided such indebtedness is sustainable — i.e., there are good chances of repaying the debt with little or no negative impact on national welfare.

"Her impeccable integrity of the first term has been increasingly questioned. Accusations have increased of her turning a blind eye to graft to pursue greater political ambitions," Adebajo also says of Okonjo-Iweala." And I respond that, on their own, accusations do not amount to the proof of misconduct for which integrities ought to suffer. The graveyard of malice is littered with the tombs of such baseless, malicious and politically motivated accusations being levelled against the likes of Okonjo-Iweala by her detractors and the critics of the government in which she is serving. Yet she continues to transcend them and push for progress in spite of the irritations they are bound to cause.

Ojah is a Professor of Financial Economics at the Wits Business School, Johannesburg.

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