The confidence reposed in Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Nigeria’s economic czar who would bring the country out of its economic quagmire wanes as her priority has shifted to the World Bank top job
When she appeared before the 25-member World Bank board for an interview on her bid to become the World Bank president, April 9, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was blunt and convincing. For the three-and-a-half hours that the interview lasted, Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s minister of finance and coordinating minister for the economy, left no one in doubt that she was, indeed, well suited for the top job.
The 57-year-old Okonjo-Iweala, who was rated the 87th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine last year on its list of 100 most powerful women, has been expressing radical views about the running of the 68-year-old institution. If she emerged president of the World Bank, she assured that she would shake up the institution to end the inertia that has characterised its activities for over six decades. Her major focus as the helmsman of the bank would be job creation and poverty alleviation, which she said are confronting the rich and poor countries around the world. “Across the globe, policymakers are grappling with one problem, and that is the problem of job creation. I have yet to meet a single poor person who did not want the dignity of a job,” she stated. According to her, by virtue of her experience as finance minister of Nigeria and managing director of the World Bank, she has unique insights into the complex problems facing emerging markets and developing countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
During the 20 years she served at the World Bank, she had compiled a list of major issues that she found most frustrating about the way the institution conducts its business, and these she shared with the World Bank board during the interview. Part of her frustration is the lack of data to take decisions on poverty reduction in low-income countries and also the absence of instruments to deal with regional integration. Her frustration is understandable, given the fact that the official goal of the World Bank is poverty reduction, but the poverty level is still on the rise, especially in developing countries.
Since its inception in 1944, the bank has been supporting capital projects in different countries through the provision of loans. Yet the world is still grappling with poverty and unemployment. World Bank figures indicate that more than 1.5 billion people in the developing world are living below the poverty level. Even the middle-income countries also have some worrisome levels of poverty. Reports also indicate that the world faces the additional challenge of creating decent jobs as over a billion people are said to be either unemployed or underemployed. The Global Employment Trends 2012 says that 74.8 million youths aged between 15 and 24 were unemployed in 2011, an increase of more than four million since 2007. All these suggest a need for a world institution which would be proactive in meeting its targets and goals in its efforts to boost developments around the world.
As one who knows the operations of the World Bank like the palms of her hands, it is not in doubt that Okonjo-Iweala knows exactly what to do to create jobs and alleviate poverty at the global level. This, perhaps, explains the overwhelming support given to her by countries in Africa and other developing nations, majority of whom have tied their development to the apron strings of the institution. To these nations, the views of Okonjo-Iweala that the World Bank should focus more on helping developing countries build roads, railway systems and power grids to boost their economies, and also invest more in education, health and gender issues, is most palatable. To her, the complex global problems facing developing countries require a World Bank that could respond quickly and creatively to the needs of the poor. “The bank needs to be fast in delivering knowledge. Middle-income countries are no longer willing to wait when they need a question answered,” she said, flaunting her impressive credentials, which present her as the long-awaited reformer needed to make the bank more relevant to the needs of countries and peoples worldwide.
However, laudable as Okonjo-Iweala’s vision for the global community is, there are Nigerians who argue that her charity should begin at home. In her home country, the twin plagues of joblessness and poverty, which she is committed to fighting globally, are grinding the socio-economic lives of Nigerians to a halt. Many have described Nigeria as a paradox of rising poverty level amidst the country’s immense wealth. The latest result of the harmonised Nigerian living standards survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, puts Nigerian poverty profile at 69 per cent and the unemployment rate at about 20 per cent, even as analysts contend that this is a gross underestimation. This embarrassing paradox suggests a compelling need for well thought-out poverty reduction agenda to eradicate the problem.
Ken Ukaoha, a barrister and president, National Association of Nigerian Traders, attributes the country’s dilemma to its inability to manage its domestic economy despite having all it takes to be in the driving seat of the global economy. A country faced by this predicament would strive to bring on board men and women of integrity who can help to bring it out of its quagmire because having good programmes alone without having the right people to drive the implementation would produce no tangible result.
This, perhaps, explains why President Goodluck Jonathan had to go out of his way to seek out men and women he considers capable of implementing his transformation agenda. Realising that the poor state of the economy is at the root of Nigeria’s problem, Jonathan had, last year, sought, and rightly so, the return of Okonjo-Iweala as not only the finance minister but also the coordinating minister for the economy. This is her second stint as minister of finance having occupied the position between 2003 and 2006 in President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime. This additional responsibility of the coordinating minister for the economy thus places her on the driving seat of Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda, designed to resolve the socio-economic ills of the country. The government and Nigerians have demonstrated tremendous faith in her ability to help transform the economic landscape of the country.
The two-time finance minister is a Harvard educated economist and has served for more than two decades at the World Bank, occupying high positions such as managing director and vice president. She has also served as finance minister and foreign affairs minister in Nigeria. Thus to Nigerians, Okonjo-Iweala is the ‘saviour’ Nigeria has been searching for. Some even expressed the views that she possesses leadership qualities and should therefore gear up to become Nigeria’s first female president in the nearest future.
So, when she was eventually sworn in last year, Nigerians were naturally excited because they believed she would apply her World Bank experience and skills to coordinate and champion the course of actions in line with the Jonathan Transformation Agenda, designed to liberate the country from the shackles of poverty and underdevelopment. Jonathan had based his Transformation Agenda, inspired by Vision 20:2020, on key priority policies and programmes, which when implemented, would transform the Nigerian economy to meet the needs of the people. Realising the enormous faith reposed in her, Okonjo-Iweala vowed to do all she could to meet with the yearnings and aspirations of the people, adding that she was excited and humbled to be called up to serve a second time by President Jonathan.
But this would no longer be the case as the desire to liberate the world at the expense of Nigeria appears to be paramount. Although some Nigerians believe that Okonjo-Iweala is eminently qualified to occupy the top position at the World Bank, they are of the opinion that she is needed more at the national level to help transform the nation’s economic landscape. It is believed in many quarters that if Nigeria is able to get its economy right and significantly reduce poverty and unemployment levels, the country would take its rightful position in the comity of nations.
Reference has been made to Asia, which was considered the poorest region of the world in the early 1980s with about 80 per cent of its population living below the poverty threshold. The region’s poverty rate has been reduced to about 20 per cent, a feat attributed to the dramatic progress in poverty reduction in China, which is reputed to be the world’s second largest economy. China has been able to transform itself from a backward socialist state to an economic and industrial giant. By so doing, it has lifted over 500 million of its citizens out of poverty within 30 years without subjecting its programmes to the dictates of the World Bank and its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, IMF, whose stated goal is the stability of the exchange rates and reconstruction of the world’s international payment system. The IMF says its 187-member countries work “to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty.” The countries contribute money into a pool from which countries with payment imbalances could borrow funds on a temporary basis with a view to helping to improve the economies of member countries.
Adedoyin Soyibo, professor of economics, said China was able to get out of poverty faster because it did not adopt wholesale free-market reform as African countries did, but adopted a controlled capitalism. The country has more than $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. In 2009 and 2010, China granted loans of about $110 billion to other developing nations, surpassing the $100.3 billion granted by the World Bank during the same period.
In recognition of China’s growing global economic clout, the country overtook big European countries like Germany, Britain, and France in a shift in voting powers at the World Bank in 2010. Robert Zoellick, the outgoing president of World Bank, explained then that China’s share had to be increased due to its growth in the world economy. By this, the United States, US, still retained its majority stake of 16 per cent while Japan has 6.84 per cent to retain the second position with China trailing closely with 4.42 per cent, up from its former 2.77 per cent to reflect its new status as an economic giant.
This, perhaps, explains why some Nigerians argue that the task of helping to develop the economy of one’s country for it to command the desired respect is a more important role than any global assignment. It is argued that Nigeria needs Okonjo-Iweala more than the World Bank does because of the importance of getting a credible and skilled technocrat to drive the Transformation Agenda of the Jonathan government to direct the economy on the path of growth. The Agenda’s key priority areas include job creation by reinvigorating various sectors of the economy to enhance their employment-generating potential and the provision of infrastructure, including power and roads. The Transformation Agenda has also fashioned out policies for developing the seven growth drivers, identified as agriculture and food security, manufacturing, oil and gas, among others. Government will also work to entrench the culture of accountability, especially in public expenditure. Okonjo-Iweala’s role in the implementation of all these is said to be very vital.
For Obiora Akabogu, Lagos-based legal practitioner, “With her vast experience, Nigeria needs her more as a developing nation. The fact that somebody of Okonjo-Iweala’s pedigree doubles as minister and coordinator of the economy not only confers a high degree of credibility on the President’s Transformation Agenda, but also means that Nigeria and Nigerians need her more than the World Bank, especially since the Transformation Agenda of the President is still mid-way,” he argued, stressing that in terms of rendering service to humanity, Nigeria needs her more, but in terms of personal gains, she needs the World Bank more.
The Lagos-based lawyer also took a swipe at Nigerians and Africans who still look up to the World Bank and IMF for solution to their economic woes, noting that it is a reflection of the poverty of leadership that is ravaging African countries. “These (IMF and World Bank) are neo-colonial agencies who believe that he who pays the piper dictates the tune. African leaders have run short of ideas on how to tackle poverty and under-development, hence they look up to these institutions rather than look inwards,” he told the magazine, noting that what is required is majorly discipline and sacrifice on the part of leaders in Africa. “Ghana went through that way under former president Jerry Rawlings, and today Ghana economy has become a modern-day miracle because Rawlings took Ghana through that rigorous process,” he said. Akabogu, however, noted that the support Okonjo-Iweala is receiving from the presidency is due to what is perceived to be the positive image her presidency would confer on the nation and the fact that it would go down in history as the first time somebody from Nigeria, a Third World country, would occupy that exalted position.
Ukaoha, however, is in support of Okonjo-Iweala occupying the top position in the World Bank. “At this stage of our development, we require somebody like (Okonjo-) Iweala, somebody who will represent Nigeria, somebody who can rewrite the history of Nigeria, somebody who can be seen as a global citizen from Nigeria to head the World Bank, especially given the fact that the international media is usually awash with negative issues about Nigeria. It would help to polish the image of the country,” he opined. To Ukaoha, “By letting her go, we are telling the world that Nigeria is not all about Boko Haram or other forms of negativity, but that we also have first-class people who can mount the international stage.”
Mayowa Sodipo, a policy analyst, also expressed similar views. “I believe that Okonjo-Iweala in the World Bank may not directly impact on our economy, but it will place the country in good stead for consideration during economic decision-making,” he said, adding that she can serve the World Bank and still serve her country “if our government can be humble enough to take wise counsel from her.”
Many believed that there is a possibility that the World Bank board may decide, this week, to make Okonjo-Iweala its new president to succeed Zoellick whose tenure ends on June 30. Will Okonjo-Iweala abandon her ministerial job for the World Bank? What will happen to the economy in the event the President is unable to get a perfect replacement for her? These are many questions agitating the minds of Nigerians.
Additional reports by Chikodi Okereocha, Muyiwa Lucas and Ayodeji Adeyemi