Sunday, June 28, 2015

Outgoing Nigerian Finance Minister Interviewed by Daily Trust
Friday, 12 June 2015 04:00
Written by William Wallis

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s arrival is announced by the rattling of a suitcase over London cobblestones. She is accompanied by her loyal assistant, the appropriately named Constance, and is trailing something heavy. Unfinished business, I’m guessing.

We are meeting during her last days as minister in charge of Nigeria’s economy, the biggest in Africa. For much of the past three decades Okonjo-Iweala has championed her country’s - and continent’s - interests, earning her place on the global stage as one of the best-known African officials of her time.

You wouldn’t know it from the slating she has had in recent weeks at the hands of the Nigerian press, where she has been pilloried for her role in a government that has bequeathed a legacy of dwindling revenues, rising debt, corruption scandals and gaping income inequalities. One commentator accused her of having “joined the bandwagon of soiled hands in attacking whistleblowers.” Nigerians can be ruthless at taking down their own.

Weary from an all-night flight, she is nonetheless in defiant form. The original plan was to have lunch in Lagos: cowtail pepper soup, insisted Okonjo-Iweala, who was planning to administer a fiery dose according to how much she wanted me to sweat for my own (often unflattering) accounts of the government she served for the past four years. But events took over - notably Nigeria’s tumultuous election season, and the delicate transition to a new government, which concluded with the inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari <> as president.

So we meet in London, where she is in transit, and head for Momo, a Moroccan restaurant that has become a hang-out at the heart of the capital for Arabs and Africans. The venue also has the advantage of being part run by a big-hearted Algerian called Meriem Talbi Fall, who administers to staff and clientele with authority and empathy, as she might the cast of a family soap opera.

The two women, formidable in their own ways, hit it off instantly on the terrace, where a gaggle of young Gulf Arabs are smoking shishas. It is a sunny day but chilly, so we are shown to a corner inside. Surrounded by north African artefacts, latticed woodwork, and with Moroccan music playing in the background, we could almost be in Marrakech.

Okonjo-Iweala flops down on red cushions. She will be 61 this month and is looking forward to a break after 30 years of working non-stop and, in the past few years, not more than five hours sleep a night. “Every finance minister feels the same pressure,” she says.

African finance ministers are rarely celebrated. But Okonjo-­Iweala, at different times, has been an exception. As part of Olusegun Obasanjo’s government between 2003 and 2006, she played a lead role in rehabilitating Nigeria’s image, persuading western creditor nations that an oil-rich part of Africa, notorious for its wasteful ways, was sufficiently on the mend to justify an $18bn debt write-off.

In 2007, she returned to the World Bank, her long-time employer, where she was appointed managing director. She subsequently ran to become the first president of the bank from the developing world but lost out to America’s candidate, Jim Yong Kim.

Her most recent spell in Nigeria, in the government of Goodluck Jonathan, proved more controversial. The country’s economy has achieved much in the past decade, and last year, after a revision of the data, made the statistical leap to become Africa’s largest with a GDP of $510bn. Right now, with the collapse in the price of oil on which state finances and national export earnings still depend, it is in a mess. From the outset, there were jibes about her willingness to lend her reformist credentials to a lacklustre administration. Allies worried that she had put a hard-won reputation at risk. Their concern seemed justified when, in March, the electorate voted en masse to oust Jonathan, Okonjo-Iweala’s boss.

When he returned quietly to a palatial new residence in his remote village in the Niger delta, Jonathan, a former zoology lecturer who rose serendipitously to the top after the death of his predecessor in office, concluded the first constitutional transfer of power in Nigeria’s history. It is this acceptance of defeat which may help redeem him - at least partially - in the history books.

“Everyone was waiting for something to erupt. And it could have,” she says of the run-up to the March elections, when plots to curtail or defraud the electoral process abounded, and Nigeria’s future as one nation appeared at stake.

In the event, millions of Nigerians queued up to vote, for the most part peacefully, in one of the most poignant affirmations of democracy on the continent to date. By a margin of 2.3m votes, they put their faith in Buhari, an ascetic former military ruler who has pledged to stamp out corruption, spread wealth more evenly and restore order to a nation at risk of splitting at the seams.

Although Okonjo-Iweala was on the losing side, she appears genuinely delighted at how these recent events are helping to restore her country’s image, tarnished by the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram insurgents and mismanagement in the oil industry.

We agree, as we peruse the menu, that this peaceful political evolution is all the more remarkable because it was not inevitable. She confirms the veracity of an account in the Nigerian media of divisions in the incumbent’s camp on the day results came in. Alleging foul play, government hawks were pushing Jonathan to resist the verdict - which could have tipped Nigeria into a violent confrontation along ethnic and regional lines. In the same room, another group, including Okonjo-Iweala, pressed him to call his opponent and concede defeat.

“The thing is, the president was finally able to show the kind of person he really is - that he really puts the country first,” Okonjo-Iweala says. “He had said before that his ambitions were not important enough for anyone to lose their life and so he did the right thing and went and made the call.”

It is precarious moments like this - when they go the right way - that help to establish the primacy of ballots over bullets in countries such as Nigeria, which have a long tradition of authoritarian rule.

Nigerians now know that if they vote for a government that disappoints, they can vote it out four years later, I suggest. With studied loyalty, she flips my supposition on its head.

“People also know that if a person loses on a large scale, they can gracefully walk off with their head held high and support the new team, that it need not be all about antagonism.” She cites the inclusion of Buhari’s advisers in her own team at the recent spring meetings of the IMF and World Bank as an example of the goodwill that helped ease tensions in the interim period since the election. “We have a new lease of life,” she says.

By now the arrival of two glasses of chilled Sauvignon Blanc, sparkling water and an array of starters has helped her shake off the effects of her flight. I dip a crispy prawn into an avocado salsa while Okonjo-Iweala works her way through a soup, nibbling occasionally at the spread of cheese briouat, mackerel and merguez on the brass table.

It is hard to reconcile the warm, generous-spirited and intelligent woman at the table with the delusional, hubristic force recently depicted in the Nigerian media. But she has grown accustomed to relentless attacks and springs quickly into defensive posture when we turn to the subject of corruption.

She wants to talk about everything but this - and gets exasperated when outsiders like me dwell on the issue at the expense of other aspects of Nigerian life.

“I feel so alive in my country”, she says, “and I get so sad that the image people have is not of the 99.9 per cent, but of this venal, kleptocratic, power-hungry elite that have colonised the country and refused to let go.”

But industrial-scale corruption was a big factor in the downfall of the administration she served.

Report after report showed how billions of dollars were misappropriated in the allocation of fuel subsidies and shaved off revenues from crude oil sales <>, depriving the country of savings against an eventual fall in prices.

Okonjo-Iweala’s allies believe things would have been far worse were it not for her stewardship and for her battles with criminalised vested interests. She has been on the receiving end of death threats and, in 2012, saw her octogenarian mother kidnapped at the behest of fraudulent fuel marketers, whose initial ransom demand was, she says, for her resignation.

At the moment, however, her detractors from the new government and parts of the business community are noisier. They argue that she was at best ineffectual; at worst, by sticking with a government that was rotten, she went to the dark side herself. “Which dark side?” she says, laughing.

“They [her detractors] are the ones on the dark side and I will frustrate them from morning till night . . . I am the same simple person with the same simple tastes,” she adds, now tucking into a simple chicken tagine.

The most insidious thing a corrupt person can do to someone who is fighting corruption, she continues, is to paint that person as corrupt. “It is unimaginable to most of these people looking for power that you would actually want to serve your government for reasons other than grabbing money. Because that is what they themselves want. But there are many dedicated Nigerians serving day in, day out, unsung heroes, including in our armed forces. Those are the people that make me tick.”

She adds: “I am a misfit and a happy misfit. Nigeria needs more misfits.”

Nevertheless, I weigh in, there is a perception at home and abroad that last year she sat on the fence over the “missing billions”, a fiasco that helped seal Jonathan’s fate. Lamido Sanusi, governor of the central bank at the time, had exposed gaping holes, allegedly worth more than $1bn a month, in revenues remitted to the federal accounts by the NNPC, the state oil company. He was suspended from his position.

“I was on top of this thing,” Okonjo-Iweala says, insisting the only disagreement between her and Sanusi was over the scale of the discrepancies and the approach he took to exposing these without first consulting her. “Month after month, we were recording the amounts . . . that fell short. We have the records. So we didn’t disagree that amounts were missing - not missing but unaccounted for,” she says, adding that she spearheaded moves to subject the allegations to an external audit.

At this point, the son of the restaurant owner stops by to check all is well. Inadvertently, he delivers a reminder of how dimly perceived Nigeria’s outgoing president was abroad. “I am very happy for you guys that you got rid of Goodluck Jonathan,” he says, with a beaming smile. As I explain that my guest is one of Jonathan’s top cabinet members, Okonjo-Iweala steps in: “Really? Hold on so I can hear him out,” she says, laughing, and launching another spirited defence.

Women tend to have more of a life outside the office. They move on rapidly. They have other lives. That is the same way I feel. I can move on and I have a life.

In 2003, when Okonjo-Iweala first left her job as vice-president at the World Bank in Washington to take up a post in Obasanjo’s government, she says it was overwhelming how much there was to do. Nigeria had been run down for generations and every institution needed to be rebuilt.

“I said to myself the first day I sat in my office, ‘My God, this is crazy, you made the worst mistake.’ And I had to get a hold of myself, and say, ‘If you have all these problems, the best way to solve them is not to give in, you have to prioritise which ones to solve and which will have the biggest impact.’ ”

Lifting the debt overhang gave Nigeria new life, as did setting up a savings account to manage swings in the price of oil. Even so, she says, “I never planned to go back because my experience the [first] time was not a bed of roses.”

That she did so, in 2011, was out of a sense of duty and love of country - something she says her father “dinged into her head”. She says she grew up being told that education was a privilege. Her own - in Nigeria, then in the US at Harvard, and later with a doctorate in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - placed her in a position to help her country.

She believes she has. The way Nigeria manages its oil - an area she had little power over - remains in need of major structural overhaul, she says. But in other areas - mortgage financing, cleaning up payrolls, reforming the pension system and setting up a Nigerian development bank - she is adamant that there has been progress. “Even those attacking me from the new government will find these are things that are good for Nigeria and they should not for personal reasons try to destroy them.”

The attacks have made her thin-skinned at times. But Okonjo-Iweala’s character was also partly forged in conflict. As mint tea arrives for her and Arabic coffee for me, she reminisces about growing up in the late 1960s during the Biafran civil war. Her father was an officer in Chukwuemeka Ojukwu’s separatist Igbo forces and the family had to move from town to town as federal soldiers closed in. “Those were some of the most difficult years,” she says. “I learnt how to eat one meal a day or no meals. We didn’t have meat. I saw children dying around me.”

In subsequent battles, her family has always supported her, she says, particularly at the World Bank, when she had to juggle a fast-developing career with the demands of motherhood. “You have just come home from some high-level meeting with G20 finance ministers, or from chairing some big meeting on some weighty project at the World Bank, and all your children want to know is, ‘Mummy, is there any food in this house? Have you cooked?’”

As for her future, she plays her cards close to her chest but believes women find it easier to move on to new things than men. When she was at the World Bank, she says, male colleagues who had left repeatedly came back to wander the corridors, in search of consulting jobs. “Their whole identity and everything is tied up with the institution.”

Women tend to have more of a life outside the office, she says. “They move on rapidly. They have other lives. That is the same way I feel. I can move on and I have a life. A rather interesting one and I am looking forward to it so much.”

Wallis writes on African affairs for London’s Financial Times

No comments: