Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala did put her personal integrity and honour on the line when she agreed to join the cabinet of President Goodluck Jonathan. But while her principal is blundering and won’t admit it, his finance minister and coordinating minister of the economy is trying hard to confer a modicum of respectability on a decrepit regime. Sometime last year, she disagreed with the President on the health of the national economy. But while both agreed that the economy was growing at an unusually fast rate (7 percent annually), the minister, unlike Jonathan who said all Nigerians were the better for it, admitted the growth masked embarrassing structural contradictions. She said, for instance, that the economy has thrown up few billionaires in a very short time but it has left the majority of Nigerians wallowing in abject poverty.
Again, on July 3, this year, while in London to drum international support for her government’s new “Safe Schools” initiative, Okonjo-Iweala revealed in an interview she granted CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, that the Jonathan government did not communicate well with the press on the April 14 abduction of over 200 schoolgirls by Boko Haram. She was referring to the military’s announcement few days after the incident at Chibok, a rural community in Borno state, that most of the girls had been freed and returned to their school or parents. The report turned out, however, to be false.
Worse, the government initially doubted the abduction story. It was only last month, a good two months afterward, that a presidential panel set up to authenticate the abductions confirmed that indeed over 200 girls from Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, were taken away and were still being held by their captors. Before then, President Jonathan had alarmed the distraught parents of the girls when he said the government did not know where they had been moved to and turned to them to give “useful information” to the security forces.
What more, almost three months after the girls were abducted, the President is yet to visit Chibok to condole with the community and assure that his government is doing its best, in difficult circumstances, to rescue the girls and return them home safely. It was only last Sunday that visiting Pakistani teenage girl-child education campaigner, Malala Yousafzai, exacted a commitment from Jonathan to meet the girls’ parents.
In the CNN interview, Okonjo-Iweala was forthright. “This is a very delicate situation with an unpredictable group. And I think that maybe this is one of the areas where we have not been able to communicate as well as we can,” she said. “The president has two daughters. These children are our children. But we did not communicate that well…I don’t know how that happened.”
If truly, the minister did not know how the public relations blunder happened, this was how. A government, too paranoid about hiding its dirty backside, would not accept that the Chibok abduction case was one blunder too many for Nigerians and the ever watchful global community to stomach. Of course, that paranoia naturally led to that public relations debacle.
While we agree that Okonjo-Iweala did the one honourable thing that President Jonathan has been unable or unwilling to do by admitting the government’s fault, we are not sure this is what the girls’ parents want to hear now, 93 days into their daughters’ captivity. Instead they want to know how soon they will be reunited with their girls. Not even, the unveiling of the government’s Safe Schools Initiative will do. Their immediate concern is: Secure the girls’ release first, then tell them the government’s next action plan.