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Published On: Mon, Feb 24th, 2014

Nigeria’s overhyped economy minister (I)

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okonjo-iwealaBy Samuel O. Oluyemi

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 period – 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 saw 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.

In 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 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!

Samuel O. Oluyemi is a financial and emerging markets consultant based in London. He can be reached on sooluyemi@gmail.com

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