Being in the state that it is, Nigeria needs a critical mass of people to steer it clear of the calamitous course it is on. It needs people on the outside, constantly demanding better governance at all levels, and keeping politicians and civil servants honest. Equally as crucial, it needs people on the inside, fighting the hard battles necessary for reform.
In March, The Economist described Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Nigeria’s ‘Iron Lady’, and frankly, one needs an iron will to attempt any kind of reform in a nation that has gone backwards since she left her first stint as Finance Minister in 2006, to wide acclaim. Then, like now, her principal needed her to confer some measure of credibility on the cabinet. Then, like now, she answered the call.
Sadly for her, this time is different. Her official title: ‘Coordinating Minister for Finance and the Economy’, is as long as the list of problems she faces. 5 years after the first time, she has to confront a federal government bloated out of all proportion which consumes 70% of all its revenues, a petrol subsidy system used to finance the 2011 elections, state governors more reckless than ever, and a National Assembly that has a statutory allocation of N150 billion with no oversight, and little to show for it. The Excess Crude Account left behind by herself and Obasanjo was depleted to fund growing consumption by governors who just want to share whatever oil proceeds come in.
2012 started in dramatic fashion, with her attempts – increasingly in vain – to justify the removal of fuel subsidy in January. The subsidy was partially restored, and she went to work cleaning up the system, applying strict criteria for verification of subsidy claims. The results were loud complaints from petroleum marketers, lack of petrol on the streets, and the kidnap of her mother. More on that later.
In the meantime, she was widely recommended as the best candidate for the vacant position of World Bank President, going up against Jim Yong Kim, the US candidate. She received ringing endorsements from leading development experts, as well as The Economist and other leading publications. Even though the bid was unsuccessful, the moral victory was hers because her candidacy started a debate about what the role of organisations like the World Bank should be, and the lack of transparency around how its leaders are chosen.
It increasingly appears that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a prophetess that will never truly be celebrated in her own land. She was derided in some quarters for wanting to run away from Nigeria by way of the World Bank Presidency, but if that were ever the case, she didn’t show it by the manner in which she took on subsidy thieves and wasteful governors. Her office has no power to prosecute those who had stolen before, but she made it very, very difficult for them to continue robbing Nigeria blind. The proposed Sovereign Wealth Fund was another source of conflict between her and the governors, whose only mandate is to ‘share’ revenues.
These battles came to a climax when her mother was abducted on December 9, and held for 5 days. Okonjo-Iweala linked this directly to subsidy payments, a connection many had made with the appropriation of an extra $1 billion for subsidy for the rest of the year, which tallied exactly with the initial ransom demand. Crucially, the 82 year old Professor was released the very next day.
It highlighted the very real cost faced by those who try to push through reforms in a government awash with corruption, and an indication about how enemies of Nigeria’s progress may proceed in future. Kidnapping is now fair game, and this realization is a disturbing one.
Her nickname: ‘Okonjo- wahala’, conjures the image of someone who has always been an outsider, and this has proven quite true. Under Obasanjo, she at least had the comfort of fellow reformers, and a principal who – warts and all – commanded genuine respect and brought gravitas to the Presidency.
This time she has neither, hence the need for iron. Surrender is not an option. The alternative is unthinkable.