Less than a year after Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala returned as finance minister, she is set to leave the country again to pursue her dream of becoming the World Bank president, raising questions as to whether she is actually fired by patriotic zeal or in search of self glory
When, last year, Nigerians learnt that President Goodluck Jonathan was going to appoint Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as minister of finance, they heaved a sigh of relief. Okonjo-Iweala had served in the same capacity under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration between July 2003 and June 2006 and left a record of good performance.
An apostle of prudent debt management and fiscal discipline, she led the negotiations with the Paris Club of creditors to achieve debt relief for the country in 2005. Okonjo-Iweala, with the support of Obasanjo, was able to get the Club to cancel $18 billion of Nigeria’s then $30 billion debt, after Nigeria agreed to pay off the balance of $12 billion. The cancellation was reputed to be the second largest in the Club’s history and, to Nigerians, this was a very great achievement considering the fact that the country was spending about $1 billion annually to service the interests on the debts, while the principal sum kept rising. She was also commended for having installed good corporate governance and transparency in the ministry and helped to checkmate the culture of sleaze in the agencies she supervised.
When she was invited last year, she did not respond to the call for national service immediately, fuelling speculations that she had turned down the offer. She was said to have given Jonathan some conditions, one of which was to be allowed to handle the country’s ailing economy. By this time, the waiting game, for Nigerians, had begun. Many prayed for her to return home and serve her fatherland, because they saw in her a saviour who could help fix the nation’s economy, badly battered by years of corruption, neglect, lack of vision and inept governance.
Her acceptance to serve in the regime of Jonathan rekindled hope of many who were not impressed with the team Jonathan assembled to help drive his transformation agenda. Her membership of the cabinet was thus widely celebrated across various socio-economic sectors because it was seen as an indication that the President was not paying lip service to his transformation agenda, particularly when he made her the coordinating minister for the economy. Many believe that with Okonjo-Iweala on the driver’s seat, the nation’s economy would be completely transformed with its attendant impact on the socio-economic lives of the people.
They have no reason to believe otherwise; she had helped to stabilise the economy during the administration of Obasanjo and a lot of confidence is reposed in her. After being sworn in, Okonjo-Iweala hit the ground running. She is the head of the Economic Implementation Committee, EIC, which oversees the implementation of the decisions of the Economic Management Team, EMT, headed by Jonathan and which constitutes the hub of his administration’s economic policy. In achieving success with fixing the economy, Okonjo-Iweala is guided by the blueprint designed by the team. In her programme, the short to medium term agenda would focus on macroeconomic reforms and stability as well as structural reforms. She disclosed that her major area of focus would be job creation in eight key sectors – infrastructure, agriculture, security, manufacturing, housing and construction, education, health, and entertainment.
The minister of finance also promised to develop a medium term expenditure framework that would help to reduce fiscal deficit to three per cent of the gross domestic product, GDP, by this year. She frowned at the high recurrent expenditure, which she described as “unacceptably high at 73.4 per cent of total expenditure,” and said she was committed to helping to bring it down further to less than 70 per cent by 2015. Conversely, capital expenditure would be raised gradually so that by 2015, the country would have a more tolerable recurrent/capital expenditure ratio. Okonjo-Iweala’s macroeconomic reforms also include curbing rising inflation, which is currently at double digit; growing foreign reserves, which has been terribly depleted in recent years; growing foreign direct investment by five per cent; growing the nation’s GDP and restoring its credit ratings, among others. Her agenda was also to strengthen the business environment, promote trade, phase out petroleum subsidies, embark on tariff and custom reforms, ensuring transparency in budgets and procurement processes, as well as tackle graft and corruption in the system in order to deliver value to the people. She also vowed to put an end to the era of budget delay, which has become a recurring decimal in the country. For the 2013 budget, Okonjo-Iweala assured that it would be presented on time to the National Assembly for consideration and early passage by September.
So it is very clear that the task before her is gargantuan and people have expressed confidence on her ability to deliver. The President is also optimistic that with the likes of Okonjo-Iweala in his cabinet, government will deliver on its promises. “We must grow the economy, create jobs and generate happiness for our people,” said Jonathan, extolling the competence of his economic team. He said the blueprint would help to actualise Vision 20:2020 and that the economic implementing team has enough will to execute the blueprint. Nigerians believe him, and Okonjo-Iweala is the reason they do.
But the woman’s heart appears to be no longer in the execution of the blueprint that is expected to transform the nation’s socio-economic landscape. So Jonathan may have to look for someone else. The eye of the finance minister is on the presidency of the World Bank, a Bretton Woods institution, where she served as managing director before agreeing to serve as Jonathan’s finance minister. Those who have celebrated her joining the present administration are disappointed that their much-venerated captain of the ship of the economy is prepared to abandon the ship and all the lofty plans she made to revive the economy. They have cast doubts about her avowed patriotism and service to her fatherland.
Some of them are of the view that Okonjo-Iweala should be more concerned about Nigeria than the World Bank, noting that it is more honourable to serve one’s nation diligently in that capacity because of the enormity of the nation’s economic problems. Before Obasanjo appointed her finance minister, Okonjo-Iweala was not well known to a majority of Nigerians. The position brought her to the fore and helped to boost her profile, not only in the country but also at the international level. Obasanjo then saw her as having the magic wand to drive the country’s economic reform policies. However, the respected technocrat was curiously removed as finance minister and redeployed to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Shortly after her redeployment, Obasanjo removed her as chairman of his economic think tank. Till date, the former president never disclosed the reason he took such action but the minister was said to have been faulted on some issues relating to the debt buy-back deal. Having been stripped of her responsibility in the ministry and economic think tank, Okonjo-Iweala resigned and was afterwards reappointed at the World Bank, this time as managing director.
Okonjo-Iweala reportedly demanded for the merger of the Ministry of Finance and that of National Planning and also the freedom to formulate and control the country’s fiscal and monetary policies as long as she remained finance minister and coordinator of the economy, an addendum her counterparts in other ministries have frowned at. She also got her demand to be instrumental to the appointment of members of Jonathan’s economic team. Having succeeded in getting most of her demands met, Okonjo-Iweala is ready to throw it all away in her quest for the World Bank’s top position.
Is Okonjo-Iweala a patriot or an opportunist? Ogaba Oche, a professor at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, NIIA, submits that she is eminently qualified to occupy the position having worked for the World Bank institution for 20 years and has nothing to do with whether or not she is patriotic. He believes that her presidency of the world body will be better for the country. While he thinks that Okonjo-Iweala’s presidency of the World Bank will be good for the image of the country, he does not believe that her exit would have negative impact on national economy. Oche argued that “Nigerians may not miss her because there are many other qualified Nigerians who can take up the job,” adding that as minister of finance, Okonjo-Iweala has not made significant impact particularly in the area of poverty reduction.
Godwin Owoh, executive chairman, Union Consulting International, a macroeconomic research outfit, also agrees that if she eventually gets the job, it would be a blessing to the country because it would help to enhance the nation’s image. He concedes that she is the most qualified among the three people vying for the position, stressing that if her position in the finance ministry becomes vacant, there are many qualified Nigerians to occupy the position. He, however, said the national economic challenge would be a major issue because the interview panel will want to know the extent to which the candidates have impacted on their local economy. He said the issues being raised by the National Assembly about the country’s borrowing habit could work against a Nigerian candidate.
Bisi Ogunjobi, former vice chairman, African Development Bank, ADB, is also of the view that Okonjo-Iweala is qualified for the job. “Having worked for many years in the World Bank as a professional and a manager and more recently as a managing director, I believe she has what it takes to become the president of the World Bank. But you know, in international politics, it may not be the best candidate that emerges winner, but the preferred candidate,” he said, adding, “One other factor that would have also worked in Okonjo-Iweala’s favour is the fact that she is a woman. But since we now have a female at the head of the IMF, this may actually work against her.”
Ogunjobi, who described Okonjo-Iweala as an ambassador and an icon for the continent, said she should be allowed to offer her services outside the country when needed, adding that her bid for the World Bank job is not an indication of lack of commitment to her country but an attempt to grab an opportunity that surfaced for her to fly the flag of Nigeria at that level. So why did she take up the ministerial job, knowing that the current president of the World Bank would soon retire? Ogunjobi sees her acceptance of the offer in the first instance as a sign of patriotism, even if she had had her eye on the international job since that time. According to him, “rejecting Jonathan’s offer over the World Bank job would have clearly painted her as unpatriotic. The fact that Jonathan, with the backing of other countries, submitted her nomination shows that the President knows what is at stake.”
If that argument is accepted, then her current campaign is justified. It is not in doubt that she has undisputed credentials in terms of her technical and managerial expertise and an enviable track record as a development professional, but Okonjo-Iweala would be up against José Antonio Ocampo, former finance minister and central bank chief of Colombia. But her most challenging opponent would be Korean-American Jim Yong Kim, a public health expert nominated by US President Barack Obama. This is because the US, a big player in the institution, has always produced the president of the World Bank. And going by this tradition, many, like Owoh, say the odds are against her. But if she emerges the winner to replace Robert Zoellick whose tenure ends on June 30, Okonjo-Iweala would be the first African to lead the World Bank. The Washington-based institution is expected to select its new president by consensus at its Spring meetings that begin in April, so Nigerians would not have to wait for too long to know if their revered coordinator of the economy would remain or leave for Washington. If the latter is the case, Okonjo-Iweala may find it difficult at least in some circles to flaunt her avowed commitment to national service.
Additional Report by Raymond Mordi