A League Of Her Own
culled from THISDAY, August 07,
When the news broke of the
President's decision to relieve the former Foreign Affairs Minister, Ngozi
Okonjo-Iweala of her position in the Economic Management Team and of her
oversight functions of managing the nation's foreign finances, I called a
friend to enquire what could have led to this bizarre decision. Perhaps too
astonished to make head or tail of the latest saga, he described the
President's action metaphorically, calling it a death dance.
Seeing that his remark was lost on me, he explained that the term, 'death
dance' was used during combat situations to describe a soldier's body which
continues to writhe in spasms for a few minutes even after life has been
snuffed out of it. Better still, he asked me to imagine a headless chicken
whose head had been cut off and yet kept prancing around before dropping to
Still baffled by his macabre sense of reasoning, I kept wondering what the
relationship was between Okonjo-Iweala's removal and a body whose motor
neurons were working overtime. It was not until some moments later that it
hit me full blast. What my friend was trying to tell me, albeit in the most
morbid way possible, was that for the first time in the history of this
country, we were witnessing the last gasps for life of a lame duck
What better way is there for a President on his way out of office to show
that he can still flex those weakened muscles, even if it means cutting his
nose to spite his face? Well, the President with a singular flex has left
one in doubt as to who calls the shots in government. But in the process,
has lost arguably one of the brightest members of his administration.
Curiously, my friend, a highly regarded economist and public commentator on
policy issues, has never been a fan of the former Finance, and later Foreign
Affairs Minister. He has always limited her accomplishments to the
utilization of our foreign reserves accumulated from the oil windfall to
negotiate an exit debt strategy in exchange for a write off of a further $18
billion by the Paris Club. The debt deal he insists was not synonymous with
debt forgiveness and was made possible by her connections in multilateral
To some extent he is right. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, through no extra effort
whatsoever, has had the good fortune of being in charge of the nation's
finances at a time when oil prices reached unprecedented highs and enabled
the country amass oil revenues never enjoyed by previous administrations.
Her tenure coincided with a time when the global economy had entered an
expansionary phase, thus dragging the Nigerian economy along with it.
Economic stagnation of the 1980s and most of the 1990s had given way to
strong broad-based economic growth, with the large fiscal deficits, the
financing of which inflicted devaluation, inflation and high interest rates,
giving way to fiscal surpluses.
This placed Nigeria in position of strength to follow a path different from
other African countries burdened with foreign debt. The country was not
included in the list of highly indebted poor countries (HIPC) that were
eligible for 100 per cent debt relief from official lenders, the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, due to its oil wealth.
However, those countries were subjected to stringent conditions and long
delays before they qualified for debt relief. Leveraging on Nigeria's
comparative advantage, Okonjo-Iweala was able to negotiate an exit strategy
at an accelerated pace because the country had the funds to partially pay
off its creditors, who were happy to accept a smaller overall payment in
return for cash upfront.
The huge payouts made to the country's foreign creditors, however, was not
replicated back home. Nigeria's domestic debt under the former Minister
remained largely unserviced with several local contractors compelled to lay
off their staff over the non-payment of monies owed them by government. Her
pursuit of fiscal prudence, on the back of advice from multilateral donor
agencies, also led to a crack down on investments in capital projects
through which jobs could have been created.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, nonetheless, must be credited with her single-minded
determination to introduce some measure of transparency to Nigeria's
notoriously opaque finances. After decades of profligacy and financial
mismanagement, Nigeria under her watch was able to save close to $40
billion, earning the country the unique (some would say dubious in the face
of wide spread poverty and unemployment) distinction of owning the highest
stock of foreign reserves in Africa today. The debt reduction, although
obtained at a huge cost, secured the nation credit ratings similar to other
emerging economies such as Turkey and Ukraine, and positioned it to source
for funds from the international financial market under favourable terms.
Her accomplishments garnered the former Minister several accolades at home
and abroad, and gave Nigeria some respectability and clout in the
international arena. But her popularity was obviously causing some disquiet
in government especially among those who felt she was assuming a larger than
life persona and hugging the limelight. The adulation particularly by the
international community and speculation by the foreign press after her
redeployment would later contribute to her undoing.
As Finance Minister, Okonjo-Iweala had to fight battles on several fronts
some of which set her on a collision course from the get go with her boss,
the President, soon after her appointment. Chiefly, she had threatened to
resign over an attempt to remove the Budget Office from the Finance
Ministry, and even later attempted to bring the National Planning Commission
under her purview. The only thing that saved the Commission from being
subsumed was the resistance put up by Charles Soludo who was Chief Economic
Adviser to the President at the time. Never did she imagine that her
determination to align all the institutional structures associated with
macro-economic planning and management under one department would one day
come back to hunt her.
When she was redeployed more recently to the prestigious, although less
influential Foreign Affairs Ministry, the President allayed concerns by
keeping her in charge of the economic team and the management of
international finances. Ironically, the monumental decision to segregate the
management of the economy now threatened to dismantle the very structures
Oknojo-Iweala had justifiably fought to keep under her control three years
earlier. It was a costly miscalculation on her part to have thought that her
successor, Esther Nenadi Usman (now a full cabinet Minister) would stand
idly by and allow her to hive off functions that traditionally reside with
the Finance Minister.
If there is anything the saga leading to Okonjo-Iweala's exit has taught us,
it is that no one is immune (including the most revered of technocrats) to
the high wire politics that often takes place in government. If it could
happen to Colin Powell who was once considered a possible contender for
President in the United States by conservative Republicans, and yet was
still cast aside as Secretary of State by President George Bush at the
beginning of his second tenure in 2005, then it can happen to anyone.
Irrespective, Okonjo-Iweala's legacy as Finance Minister is assured. Her
achievements both individually and collectively as a key member of the
Economic Management Team has seen to it that the economic reform programme
is now cruising on auto pilot and will be difficult to reverse. Furthermore,
by resigning in the face of the cavalier treatment meted by the President,
she has shown that being in government is not the be all and end all of
life. It should serve as an example to sit tight government appointees who
wait until they are unceremoniously booted out from office. As for Nenadi
Usman, the shoes left by her predecessor will certainly be difficult to
fill. If she makes the mistake of stumbling in them, there will be no one to
break her fall, not even Mr. President.