Stuart Reid published in the current issue of Foreign Affairs a fascinating interview with Nigeria’s Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The finance minister was educated at Harvard and MIT and is a former vice president of the World Bank. More recently she was a candidate for the presidency of the World Bank. International investors and business people associate her with many or most of Nigeria’s economic reforms in the administrations of Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan. She is probably much more popular outside of Nigeria than at home, where her reforms have gored many oxes.
In her interview, Okonjo-Iweala reviews what she sees as her most important economic achievements, which range from Nigeria’s accelerated economic growth, to the clearing of Paris Club debt, to a focus on agriculture. She also looks forward to new initiatives such as expanding and invigorating the housing sector with the establishment of a Nigerian mortgage market.
The minister is also candid about the impediments to reform, such as vested interests, corruption, and what she characterizes as the current “poisonous political atmosphere.” She is less convincing on the Boko Haram insurrection in the north. She sees the president’s policies as working because, she says, Boko Haram is now isolated to Borno and Yobe states. (In fact, there has been an upsurge in violence in Adamawa state.) She describes a three pronged approach: counterinsurgency with the help of the United States, United Kingdom, and France, a “political approach,” which seems to refer to a committee that is supposed to talk “to these people and find out what they want,” and “inclusion,” which seems to be an acknowledgement that Yobe and Borno are much poorer than other parts of the country, and that the government needs to address that poverty. She makes no reference to government human rights abuses in the north. However, to be fair, her writ extends to the formal economy, not to security issues.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is closely associated with Goodluck Jonathan. Her interview casts his administration in the best light she can. As a statement of the government’s position on a number of issues the interview is useful, and her personal observations ranging from Western misconceptions about Africa to why her mother was kidnapped are fascinating. But, her discussion of economic achievements refers to or depends on statistics (such as economic growth) that are being increasingly questioned. See, for example, Morten Jerven’s book, Poor Numbers. Like many other Nigerians from the south and the west, she also downplays religious conflict between Christians and Muslims by citing examples of families that include adherents of both religions. She makes no reference to endemic ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle Belt or threats of renewed insurrection against the government in the Niger Delta, the oil patch.
She concludes her interview with a vision of Nigeria’s future as a more democratic state with high growth rates and reducing poverty. Friends of Nigeria share that vision, which has been articulated in one form or another since the end of the colonial period. As she acknowledges, Nigeria has a ways to go to achieve that vision.
John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, is a blogger