NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA AND HER CRITICS
President Goodluck Jonathan has finally constituted his cabinet but not without all kinds of intrigue, with some names appearing and disappearing on the serial ministerial lists as to leave the populace bewildered. Speculative reporting had a field day in many newspapers and supposedly authoritative ministerial lists - from sources in the Presidency – published by some newspapers got rubbished by the eventual outcome. How some editors unthinkingly put the credibility of their newspapers on the line!
Two appointments attracted heightened interest and generated controversy over and above others in the Cabinet Class of 2011 - that involving 'fashionista' Diezani Allison-Madueke, in the 'oil wars' for the soul of the petroleum industry and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Diezani contrast being rather matronly and conservative in her dressing, but who nevertheless attracted vigorous campaign for her ouster in the battle for the soul of the nation's economy.
The battle for and against Diezani was the most virulent and animated. Newspaper advertorials for and against her reappointment were a plethora.
However, I knew the battle had been won and lost when the 'Generals' rolled out the tanks in favour of Diezani who they made clear was regarded as a mentor. The advertorial by the ex-Generals, the Warlords of Niger Delta militancy, literally directing President Jonathan to re-appoint their anointed Madam sealed the controversy in Diezani Allison-Madueke's favour.
The other appointee who has been on the firing line, before and after her appointment, is Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Ph.D (MIT) B.A (Harvard- Magna Cum Laude) the egg-head daughter of egg-head parents - father and mom are professors. Criticisms of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala are more fundamental since they touch on the critical area of the overall economic direction of the nation. This makes her primus inter pares among the cabinet members. So, it is understandable if she takes a lot of flak.
Much of the criticism centre on what some considered her over hyped achievement with regard to the nation's debt write-off during her first coming as finance minister - 2003 to 2006 - during the Obasanjo presidency. There were also those who felt that she should not have taken the Southeast slot, being an indigene of Delta state, though married to a Southeast native. See how position has made some people to want to disown their 'daughter'.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala must be wondering why missiles are being thrown at her considering that she did not lobby for the job of finance minister. She was in a difficult position. If she had declined the offer, there are those who will lampoon her for not heeding the call to service in the fatherland. Now that she was persuaded to take the job, the refrain of some of the critics has been : Is she the only one who can do the job? Among the leading critics of her being offered the finance portfolio is Mohammed Haruna, the columnist with The Nation newspaper. In his back page Column of July 6, 2011 captioned 'As Ngozi returns to Finance ministry', Haruna literally pooh-poohed what many considered Dr. Okonjo-Iweala sterling performance in getting debt relief to exit the debtors club with the Paris Club of commercial creditors.
On July 13, 2011, Haruna yielded much of his Column page to reactions to his write-up on Okonjo-Iweala the previous week. Well, I would not know how many reactions Haruna got and what were the criteria in selecting those published. But I have a snick feeling he might have published more of those which reinforced his point of view. And, those folks went at her with a sledge-hammer. One Charles Amankwe wondered why getting the minister off a lucrative Nigerian slot at the World Bank when guys like Chukwuma Soludo, Olusegun Aganga or Nenadi Usman can do the job creditably. Oluseye Akanmu-Bode was convinced the minister 'will serve the interest of the West more than her fatherland. That was not all Akanmu-Bode alleged she is a mole planted to monitor our economy just as she paid part of our debts when other countries, including the U.S., still owe more debts than us.
Weighty allegation, that. For Na'Allah Mohammed, he no longer gets excited about bringing World bank or IMF officials into the cabinet of any President. Reason : Okonjo-Iweala's first coming did not substantially reduce poverty in the land. He had a poser for the minister : 'Will she have the courage to stop profligacy, misplacement of priorities, greed and misappropriation, which have become second nature to our governments? That, I say, is a very legitimate issue to raise. Can she, would she?
Perhaps, the criticism that took the cake was the lengthy piece from one Ndaliman Magaji. His opening sentence showed bile. 'Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is just reaping the benefits of over-advertising oneself to a gullible nation'.
He continued: 'Even her portfolio at the World Bank is over-bloated' adding rather dismissively that she 'is only but one of three managing directors, who man each of the divisions in the Bank' but which is projected in the Nigerian media as if she is the head of the institution. Magaji believes 'we over celebrate what others take for granted'.
He claimed that Okonjo-Iweala deliberately scuttled a Nigerian's bid for the position of President of the African Development Bank because she had her eye on the position and that she had parleyed her tours of duty in Nigeria to personal promotion advancement at the World Bank. Okonjo-Iweala, he further claimed, has no experience in macroeconomics but is rather 'a project expert' and, as such, only fit to head project ministries like Energy, Works or even industries.
I have extensively reproduced these criticisms since they reflect the general trend, but which sadly exposes situations where emotions override reasoned argument. Starting with Haruna's claim that the debt relief was a yeo-man's job for Western creditors, this assertion is mischievous. No doubt, the West gained getting a lump sum but Nigeria also gained by being relieved of an annual debt service burden of about $1billion without a dent in the principal owed. But for the debt write-off, Nigeria would have by 2011 paid at least additional six billion dollars debt service charge, excluding millions of dollars involved in protracted debt restructuring negotiations and the attendant consultancy payment. So, the debt relief, spear-headed by Okonjo-Iweala, under the overall leadership of President Olusegun Obasanjo, was a win-win situation for Nigeria and the Western creditors. And Ngozi's understanding of Western creditors was a factor.
The general attitude of many critics that : what's the big deal about this woman - is an undeserved put down and one of our penchants for denigrating one of our own. It is only a malevolent critic who will assert that someone who holds a doctorate degree in regional economics and development from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) USA, a bachelors degree in economics from Harvard and over 20 years experience at the World Bank, much of it relating with developing countries in the Africa division of the bank is not qualified to be a finance minister. Perhaps we need to remember that Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a lawyer and one of the best finance ministers Nigeria ever produced for his prudent management of the war economy during the Biafra insurrection.
We may also need to know that Adamu Ciroma, a history graduate, was a successful governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Magaji's claim that Ngozi's 'tour of duty in Nigeria paved the way for her sudden rise at the World Bank, because until Obasanjo discovered her, she was a relatively junior official (emphasis mine) at the World Bank' flies in the face of record since before her appointment she was already Vice-President and Corporate Secretary of the World Bank.
That cannot be a junior position. Critics should hold facts sacred. As to the insinuation that Nigeria did her a favour with the finance ministerial portfolio, there was a former vice-president of the bank, M. Quershi who was appointed Prime Minister of Pakistan, on a salvage mission, straight after leaving the World Bank. Alassane Quattara, now president of Ivory Coast, who Nigerians adore held comparatively junior position at the IMF to Ngozi's at the World Bank. Perhaps, the fact should also be put in the public domain that Ngozi has earned global recognition for her contribution to Nigeria which include the Time Europe Hero award (2004).
With regard to Nigeria's loss of the Presidency of the African Development Bank (ADB) to the Rwandan, Dr. Donald Kaberuka, I think it is not fair to put the blame solely on Ngozi and attribute it to her ambition for the post. It was primarily a failure of Nigerian diplomacy whereby the nation's ambassadors abroad were unable to articulate Nigeria's case in the member countries of their posting. Even the Nigerian media showed little interest.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala's statement at her Senate confirmation hearing that Nigeria is living beyond her means should be a pointer to her inclination to rein in the nation's conspicuous consumption pattern in public budgeting. Ultimately, though, it is President Goodluck Jonathan who has the final decision. If her vision for spending restraint fails and the nation gets back into the debt trap, it would be unfair for critics, in postscript, to blame her for the failure.