OKONJO-IWEALA AND HER VOODOO ECONOMICS By Tochukwu Ezukanma
During her earlier stint as the Nigerian Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala earned the respect and admiration of many Nigerians. They considered her the most honorable and incorruptible minister in the Olusegun Obasanjo's administration. Finally, she resigned from the Obasanjo government.
This time around, as she was slated to be part of the Goodluck Jonathan administration, many Nigerians were elated, believing that she was bringing expertise, international credibility, honor, principles and incorruptibility to her job. While she may have brought all these wonderful attributes to her ministerial position, she also brought a baggage, a very heavy baggage. She is an international bureaucrat and international bureaucrats have a penchant for causing confusion.
They normally reside in the most exclusive neighborhoods of the world's most livable cities, and their offices are situated in the most prestigious areas of these cities' Central Business Districts. They shop at the trendiest boutiques, and wine and dine at the ritziest restaurants, in town. Generally, their lifestyles are so elitist and their social and professional circles so selective that they cannot relate to the middle class, thoughtless of the poor, of these Western cities they reside in.
Paradoxically, these bureaucrats that are totally disconnected from the middle class of Western countries are empowered to take economic decisions on behalf of the poor in Third World counties and coerce their governments to accept them. They pretend to know the economic problems and needs of developing nations. Supposedly, they understand the cultures, values and susceptibilities of these societies that are separated from them by attitude, tradition, customs and thousands of miles.
From the comfort of their swanky offices, poring through statistics, sometimes, muddled up statistics, and relying on universal theories that pay no respect to local peculiarities, they pontificate on the economic problems of developing countries, and condescendingly, proffer their solutions. They seem oblivious to the fact that statistics, at the best of times, “are like bikinis, what they reveal is important but what they hide is essential”, and that universal economic theories demand critical reviews to make them adaptable to local realities.
Not surprisingly, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund [IMF] officials ruined the economies of many Third World countries with their then economic fad: currency devaluation. Not too long ago, the international bureaucrats at the Hague (World Court) gave Nigeria a test of their harum-scarum justice. Disregarding the Bakassi people's historical ties and cultural and ethnic bonds with Nigeria, they snatched the Bakassi peninsula from Nigeria and handed it over to Cameroons.
Again an international bureaucrat is at work. With that World Bank and IMF studied indifferent to the economic perils of the masses, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala masterminded the removal of fuel subsidy in Nigeria. The removal of the fuel subsidy and its attendant increase in the price of petrol, transportation and almost every consumer good is visiting enormous hardship on Nigerians.
Sadly, the government's rational for the removal of the subsidy makes no economic sense. The government's logic can be likened to that of a man who has been employed for 13 years and earns 100,000 naira a month. This man has been unable to furnish his house, adequately feed his children and pay their medical bills. But he wants the world to believe that with a 10 percent increase in his monthly salary, he will not only furnish his home, feed his children, pay their medical fees but also move them from the squalid neighborhood they presently inhabit to an upscale apartment in an exclusive neighborhood. What staggering nonsense? What brazen, barefaced falsehood?
Since the inception of democracy 13 years ago in Nigeria, the Nigerian government has committed trillions of naira, annually, to the same programs it is promising to direct the saving from the removal of subsidy to: construction and rehabilitation of roads, rails, and other infrastructures, job creation, skill acquisition programs, poverty alleviation, upgrading the health services, etc.
However, in these 13 years, the incidence of poverty in Nigeria increased from 45 percent to 70 percent; the unemployment rate spiraled out of control; national institutions and public facilities atrophied and decayed; roads network [both state and federal] and bridges dilapidated further and further to death traps; more people, especially, in urban areas, became homeless: living in open air and under the bridges; and urban neighborhoods relapsed more to festering squalors: dusty, filthy and trash-strewn with open drainage systems clogged with filth and debris.
In the same period, the average live expectancy in Nigeria decreased from 51 for men and 52 for women to 44 for men and 45 for women. And Nigeria continues to have the infamous distinction of having the highest pregnancy-related deaths in the world. With 2% of the world's population, it accounts for 11% of the world's maternal mortality and 12% of the world's under-five mortality.
The Nigerian government is pretending that with an additional 428 billion naira, which will be the federal governments share from the saving from the removal of the subsidy, the Jonathan administration will unrecognizable transform Nigeria. It wants Nigerians to believe that, thus far, the trillions of naira budgeted and spent annually by the government brought decline and decay in every aspect of our national life. But with an increase of less than 10 percent in the government's annual revenue, it will not only arrest the decline, but will, in addition, dramatically enhance the quality of life for all Nigerians, upgrade the country's infrastructure and revamp the national institutions.
I am not an economist and therefore cannot pretend to have any inkling of the arcane of economics. However, commonsense tells me that the government's argument makes no conventional economic sense. Therefore, it must be voodoo economics.
According to some sources, Okonjo-Iweala aggressively promoted her voodoo economics, and threatened to resign her ministerial post, if the president succumbs to pressure from the Nigerian Labor Congress and the Civil Society Organizations and reinstate the fuel subsidy.
In the interest of the country, Mr. President should have completely restored the fuel subsidy and returned the price of fuel to 65 naira per liter, and then, accepted her resignation. And with these, he would have done Nigeria a lot of good. For one, the international bureaucrat with her excess luggage of fiendish and inhumane economic policies would have been freed to return to that bastion of international bureaucracy, the World Bank.
Secondly, the added economic burden occasioned by the increase in fuel price would have been lifted off Nigerians, thus reducing the people's anger and resentment towards his government. In addition, the legitimate aspirations – the will - of the people would have been respected. For if Nigeria is a democracy and not a whitewashed dictatorship, the will of the people should dictate the decisions and actions of every elected and public official and the operations of every institution of government.
Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria.