Outdated Ideology and Common Sense
culled from ThisDay,
July 19, 2005
It is rarely my style to respond to
articles or opinion pieces except where they deliberately misinform and mislead
the public as Mr. Simon Kolawole's two articles on the recent debt relief do.
It is clear that Simon Kolawole is not in possession of the facts on how the
Paris Club debt works otherwise he would not have made some of the misguided
arguments he put forward in those two articles. His lengthy pieces are full of
factual errors and errors of logic garnished with populist 1960's ideology much
of which is pass√©. Quite frankly, some of his arguments defy common sense.
Let me just take two of the key points he made. First, he argues that Nigeria
should just refuse to pay its debt obligations as nothing will happen. And he
cites the Abacha years when we refused to pay as an example when nothing
happened. Well, it is amazing to hear that the country‚??s accumulation of over
$5 billion in interest and punitive penalties which have partly accounted for
our debt ballooning to what it is today is regarded by Mr. Kolawole as nothing
It is important to clarify that the Paris Club debt is sovereign debt owed to
other countries. It is quite different from the type of private sector or
commercial bank debt owed by countries like Argentina where there is much more
room to practice the type of debt repudiation tactics suggested by Mr. Kolawole.
In the case of Paris Club sovereign debt when a debtor country refuses to pay,
the creditor countries just sit tight and calculate the interest, penalties, and
interest on penalties contained in the credit agreement signed by the hapless
debtor. This continues for as long as the country refuses to pay until the
original debt balloons sometimes beyond recognition. Unlike the private sector,
commercial or investment banks of creditor countries, are not interested in
coming to the negotiating table to settle bad debts, neither will they take the
debt off their books. They wait and let it pile up comfortable in the knowledge
that the debtor country's image in international financial circles will be
increasingly damaged and the country's private sector will find it increasingly
difficult to do business overseas.
What I have just described is exactly what happened to Nigeria when we refused
to pay before and during the Abacha years. The debt ballooned, and the problem
did not go away. Instead, the problem worsened. It was this bad situation that
President Obasanjo inherited when he took office in May 1999. And he decided to
do something about it! The President, myself, and members of the Economic Team
have had to work very hard to restore confidence in the country within
international financial circles, and then persuade our creditors to come to the
So, the bottom line is that the country has already tried what Mr. Kolawole
suggested and it didn't work. It defies logic and commonsense to refuse to
learn from past mistakes and for someone to actually recommend that we repeat
these mistakes. The tragedy of this country is that it has people like Mr.
Kolawole who keep trying to lead the country down the same bad old path that it
has already trodden. But the triumph of this country is that it now has
discerning leadership and followership that will not let this happen.
Now, to a second point made by Mr. Kolawole which is that we should not get rid
of all of our debt by paying off the remainder after the debt reduction but we
should negotiate our debt down to $15 billion or thereabouts, continue to remain
indebted, and continue to pay for many more years to come. Well,
congratulations to Mr. Kolawole. What he is advocating is exactly what our
creditors want. They are very happy for us not to pay off the remainder, but to
reschedule it over 18 years at a market rate of interest. This is what they
typically do with countries in Nigeria's category that get debt relief. They do
not allow them to pay off the balance of the debt not forgiven, but they must
reschedule it. That way, the creditors continue to collect payments and have an
assured stream of income from this rescheduled debt for many years. Anyone who
has dealt with creditors or money lenders know that they are not interested in
letting a debtor go free but would rather keep him or her in debt and keep
collecting as much as they can for as long as they can. Mr. Kolawole's
insistence on this point that we must reschedule our debt and remain indebted to
the Paris Club for another 23 years is rather surprising to me because it
differs radically from the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of
Nigerians. By their letters, phone calls, emails, and other means Nigerians
have made their opinion known to us that they want to be free of this Paris Club
debt. Mr. Kolawole does a very good job of making the creditors' case that we
remain indebted. This does make one wonder.
Let me say that Nigeria got an unprecedented breakthrough in getting an
agreement from the Paris Club to pay off the rest of its debt and exit. We did
some technical and analytical work to show that the extreme volatility of oil
prices being experienced in the world these days could expose Nigeria to extreme
uncertainty in the future regarding debt payment and this would be unfair.
Several of our G-8 creditors especially the U.K., and our partners in the
international financial institutions, bought this argument and championed our
cause before the others enabling us to get this concession. We must not
squander this opportunity. We must not allow our attention to be diverted from
our objective by spurious arguments, but must seize this opportunity and get
ourselves free. It is clear to me that while many Nigerians did not believe
that we would ever get debt relief, deep inside them most Nigerians prayed and
wished fervently that God would look favourably on us in this matter. And God
has done so and Nigerians are joyful. But a tiny minority are not happy because
neither did they believe we would get debt relief nor did they really want us
to. Debt relief took them by surprise and they are bereft and confused. So
they have taken to calling it a Big Lie, or to propagating opinions implying
relief has no benefits and we should therefore strive to remain in bondage.
Let me note at this point that no amount of opinion pieces will change facts.
The fact is that we have got debt relief to the tune of about $18 billion. In
addition, Nigeria has been given an unprecedented chance to rid itself of the
remainder of its Paris Club debt. Whether this tiny minority likes it or not,
Nigeria will make use of this chance! The wishes of the majority to solve this
long lasting problem must be respected.
Finally, let me say on a personal note that many comments made by Mr. Kolawole
in his two articles go beyond the bounds of decency. Mr. Kolawole stated, for
example, that there is a rush to conclude the debt deal because commissions will
be made in excess of $300 million by those who will handle the debt buy back.
First, who are these people who will handle the buy-back? Would Mr. Kolawole
care to name them? Mr. Kolawole must know far more than the Paris Club, Mr.
President, myself, the DMO and others working on this because we do not know
what and whom he is talking about. The statement is libelous, disrespectful and
in extremely poor taste. I leave Nigerians to judge whether Mr. President and
myself are rushing to conclude a deal for Nigeria so that someone can make
money. The mere fact that Mr. Kolawole could make such a statement shows the
quality of man he is and the quality of intellect he has. It is extremely
disappointing that Mr. Kolawole and other cynics like him misuse the wonderful
freedom of expression we have in this country to misinform, miseducate and
mislead others. Their writing is largely devoid of facts and based on outdated
ideology, emotion and sentiment. But Nigeria will survive them too!
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the