Okonjo-Iweala And Nigeria's Future


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Okonjo-Iweala And Nigeria's Future




Ike Okonta




culled from THISDAY, August 5 and 13, 2006



The present clamour as political events build up towards May 2007 is  for ‘power-shift.’ It is mischievous as it is self-serving, designed to focus the debate, not on the substantive political and economic problems  millions of ordinary Nigerians are grappling with daily, but on the antics of a certain  specie of Nigerians who thrive on selling and buying political favours to  serve narrow ends.
In this two-part essay, I shall make a case for a radical break with the politics of opportunism that emerged in our country in the heyday of the Second Republic, the ways and means of enthroning a new issues-driven politics, and how a new generation of well-educated and public spirited Nigerians – for which Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the classic example - might craft a broad political consensus to leverage enough votes to propel them to the Presidency in 2007.

Those who call for ‘Powershift’ have so far failed to explain to Nigerians how the transfer of the office of President from one region to another will address the issues of mass unemployment, low productivity, and parlous social services that have held the nation down since she attained formal independence in 1960. On this matter, I fault the positions of Northern, South-East, and South-South political elements who have so far hijacked the debate.
It is significant that the leading lights of this clamour are the same personages who have hogged political office in our country since the First Republic. That they have done a very bad job with regard to the Nigerian project is clearly advertised by the social and economic condition of the average Nigerian today; the fact that Nigeria remains an underdeveloped nation in spite of her human and material endowments; and the additional fact that in matters concerning Africa in the international arena, it is foreign NGO’s and such institutions as the IMF that are increasingly listened to instead of  Nigeria’s political and intellectual leaders.

Had those who clamour for power shift anchored their demand on a clear policy programme they believe will correct the ills I have enumerated, then perhaps they should be listened to. That they have not done so, even when discerning analysts at home and abroad are warning that Nigeria’s political and economic problems are now so serious that failure to address them urgently could lead to state failure and possible disintegration, shows clearly that the time has come to banish them from positions of leadership and authority.

Firmly opposed to this politics of unenlightened self-interest is a new intellectual and political movement, linked to President Obasanjo’s on-going economic reform programme but now gradually developing a life of its own. Led by Foreign Minister Ngozi-Okonjo Iweala, the leading actors of this movement believe that free market reforms, coupled with a root and branch retooling of the public service, and transparency in the conduct of government business will help transform the country from the perennial laggard to an African economic giant by the year 2020. A generous dose of foreign direct investment, attracted to the country by these reforms, is seen as the catalyst for economic regeneration.

Four years into this experiment, the verdict out on the streets is one of mixed results. While a good percentage of Nigerians have voiced out their support for such popular programmes as tackling the external debt problem and putting commercial banks on a sound footing, they have also expressed deep misgivings concerning such matters as mass retrenchments in the public service, the sale of publicly-owned enterprises to fronts of crooked politicians at give-away prices, and the fact that these much-touted reforms have not yet translated to concrete benefits such as reduction in the price of basic food items, affordable transportation costs, and access to quality healthcare and education for their children.

There is no serious debate about the obvious shortcomings of these neoliberal economic reforms, guided by the IMF’s Policy Support Instrument, because alternative voices in the Social Democratic tradition in Nigeria have either been silenced by grinding poverty or are now so sidelined that they no longer matter in the political equation. Since serious politics abhors a vacuum, and given the very frightening possibility that the very elements that drove Nigeria into the ditch during the Second Republic and since are now limbering up to replace Obasanjo in 2007, the case for a broad political coalition, taking on aspects of the Reformists’ economic programme but given a human face by the social policies advocated by Nigerian Progressives, and led by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, should be seriously considered by all those who wish post-Obasanjo Nigeria well.

Why Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, given that I have long argued that the IMF’s neo-liberal policies will never take Nigeria to the land of economic prosperity and social wellbeing? I argue that Okonjo-Iweala should seriously consider running for President for the simple reason that she takes Nigeria as an economic and social project seriously, has clearly demonstrated this by leaving the World Bank to work directly on this project, and possesses the critical intelligence and broad experience required to pilot this country in a period of seismic shifts in the global balance of power, economic transformations, and repositioning of strategic interests.

The sobering truth is that present day Nigeria is racing against time. She has to quickly reposition in the international arena to take maximum advantage of opportunities opened up by industrializing China and India. But Nigeria also has to recalibrate her internal social and economic structures to bridge the growing dangerous gap between the rich and poor, open up the rural areas through massive infrastructural and social development programmes, and in so doing, draw millions of impoverished people, in rural villages as well as urban slums, into the national enterprise of wealth creation, citizen participation in governance and sundry civic activities, and projecting the country internationally as the giant of the African world which, indeed she is.
These are enormous tasks, tasks that only those that have taken time to prepare their minds for the complexities of high level policy making in a vicious international arena where the foolish, lazy, and the corrupt are swiftly punished, are able to shoulder. It is obvious that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is tailor-made for this important task, even as I emphasize that a project such as this requires not just the talent of a single individual no matter how accomplished, but a collection of well-educated, creative, and patriotic doers over which she or he will superintend.

But the case of Okonjo-Iweala for President instantly begs a question. On what platform should she run, able to draw to its capacious umbrella an aggregation of political constituencies and beliefs large enough to propel this Collection of Nigeria’s Brightest and Best to the Presidency in 2007?

In an essay I wrote in this column in May 2003 following Dr. Ngozi-Okonjo’s decision to serve as President Obasanjo’s Finance Minister I commented thus:

 ‘I am not a fan of the World Bank as it is presently structured and run, as I have made clear in this column. But I am a fan of its former Vice President. I am a fan of Dr Okonjo-Iweala because she represents all that is accomplished and resilient in a beleaguered Africa. A hardworking and versatile author, she had just co-written a biography of Chinua Achebe a couple of months before she packed her bags and headed for Abuja, heeding her nation’s call. Prior to that, she had edited a book highlighting the magnitude of the debt crisis in Nigeria, giving ample space to some of the finest minds in the world to point Nigeria and Africa to the path out of the woods. She is a loving mother; and herself the daughter of parents who are academics of global eminence. And to crown it all, Dr Okonjo-Iweala is an African patriot who does not suffer fools gladly... I admire courage, intelligence, hard work, and self-sacrifice. Our new Minister of finance has all these qualities in abundance, and that is why this column shall pay close attention to her new career in Abuja in the coming months and years, that is if the expert wreckers of our dreams do not force her out sooner than later.’

Two weeks ago the wreckers of our dreams did force Okonjo-Iweala to quit as Foreign Minister, a new portfolio she was just getting used to after a sudden cabinet reshuffle and she was redeployed from the powerful finance ministry. These forces are as powerful as they determined. They thrive and prosper only in an atmosphere of chaos, corruption, and cynicism, and usually deploy slander, bribery and outright violence to attack true reformers working to return governance in the country to the path of sanity. They are as old as independent Nigeria, and so deeply embedded in the sinews of government at all levels that to displace them will require nothing short of a surgical operation. 

 Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and her team were putting in place the enabling condition for this surgical operation to take place when President Obasanjo forced her into an impossible corner and she did the honourable thing and resigned. Unfortunately, public comments in the media in the wake of her decision to quit have not properly focused on the potent forces she had had to wrestle with right from the outset; forces so parochial and self-serving that even the modest benefits that ought to have trickled down to the ordinary people from the economic team’s harsh neo-liberal reforms were cornered and salted away in private bank accounts.

 Some have even argued that it was the former finance minister’s good fortune that she took office in a period of surging oil revenue, and that the little improvement in the nation’s economic condition that was recorded during this time was on account of this development, not due to any real effort on Okonjo-Iwela’s part.

 These, and other commentators of similar persuasion miss the point, even as I concede that the living condition of the ordinary people remain parlous four years into the economic reform programme. One may disagree with the ideological framework that drove Okonjo-Iweala’s interventionist strategy, and I count myself as one of this party, but no one can seriously argue with the fact that in three short years, the former finance minister opened up Nigeria’s notoriously opaque public exchequer to public scrutiny, zealously husbanded the recent oil revenue windfall, made her ministry fit for the purpose it was intended, and got Nigerians and outsiders alike talking seriously again about the ways and means of realizing the economic possibilities of this sleeping giant. These are important achievements for which Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will be remembered for years, long after the storm generated by her exit from the Foreign Ministry last week has subsided.

 The manner of her abrupt departure from service, and the murky politics that made this inevitable, should focus minds on how a new politics of public service might return Okonjo-Iweala to public office, but this time as a political leader directly accountable to Nigerian voters. And this brings us back to the question I posed in the first part of this essay last week: On what party political platform should she run for President in 2007?
 We can quickly rule out the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The PDP is not so much a political party as an agglomeration of narrow political interests in pursuit of private gain. After nearly eight years in office the PDP still has not been able to produce a party document that can speak in a forthright and intelligent manner to Nigeria’s many problems. The economic reform programme currently being implemented by the Obasanjo government was conceived by Dr Okonjo-Iweala four years after the PDP took office, was fleshed out in detail by Charles Soludo, and its implementation strategy worked out by the former finance minister as leader of the President’s economic team. PDP officials, still busy looting the treasury, made no input in this important national endeavour.

 The All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and the Alliance for Democracy have been effectively ground into the dust by the PDP juggernaut, even as the latter is now fighting off factional elements within its ranks. Left of the centre political parties north and south of the country have still not been able to register on national consciousness, weighed down by poor finances, poor logistics, and an inability to rethink their broad political strategy in a post-military dispensation.
 The forces rooting for a politics of regeneration and public service, a new intellectual and political movement Okonjo-Iweala should head, should see the present parlous condition of party politics in the country as a challenge, not an obstacle. There are several registered political parties with neither significant membership nor ideological content. These are empty shells waiting for new determined, willful, and purposeful occupants. A new broad coalition, bringing together the liberal-reformist concerns of the likes of Okonjo-Iweala, Nasir El Ruffai, Patrick Utomi, Udo Udoma, and Obiageli Ezekwesili on the centre right, and the pro-poor policies of noted social democrats such as Prof. Attahiru Jega, Edwin Madunagu, Bamidele Aturu and the broad labour and human rights collective.

 While it is true that the resulting coalition will be an assortment of strange bedfellows in the beginning, it is also the case that they will have much on which to unite in 2007, not least the urgent need to rid the country of the deadly grip of an uneducated, indolent and cynical political class that has held and abused power for far too long; the need to return rational intellectual debate to the business of policy-making; and the need to make politics turn again on the anvil of proper political parties animated by civic and intellectual ideas, and that can be voted in and out of power through fair and free elections.

 Ideological purity has its place, but a crisis situation calls for a pragmatic politics broad enough to unite disparate political actors in the immediate task of saving the nation and its people from marauders intent on bringing the roof crashing down. It is for this singular reason that I urge Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to throw her hat into the ring come 2007.



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