Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Will She Deliver?

Published on 30th September 2011

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala                   Photo courtesy
In a recent directive, some are boiling that Nigeria President Jonathan, singled out one of his cabinet members: Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala - Finance Minister, as a sort of go-between with the other Ministers and an idol.

While the president has the prerogative to assign such role, it has the potential of brewing disdain, distaste and discontent among other cabinet members, and may derail his leadership at the expense of the Nigeria nation. As the Ministers are supposedly pulling and pushing for a better Nigeria, while helping themselves as a loosely gathered bunch; no surprise there, the only thing Mr. President should not do or be seen as doing is playing favors.

Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala is no superstar on the basis of her employment title as Managing Director at World Bank. The title of Managing Director of/at World Bank, does not really mean anything in the scheme of things. US government retains the sole appointment of the World Bank president and it must be an American [native]??? while IMF president must be European. The likes of Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, are given glamorous titles as a default position to impress unsuspecting nations. As a matter of urgency, any serious developing nation, should not consider anyone that has served in such position to head its Finance Ministry. But in a country of anything goes - Nigeria, who cares?

Why Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala? No surprise there. My take: Mr. Jonathan, someone who is easily impressed by anyone coming from the World Bank or abroad, sees her as an asset by default and above the average. But is Mr. President right? Hell no. He is off mark.

In a country where the perception of World Bank is seen as an institution that holds the resources to make Nigeria great, anyone spotting WB experience, sadly, is seen as an asset. It should be pointed out that experience gained working for the World Bank, in most developed economies has no collateral value. In the case of Nigeria, where the desirable is not available, the available by default and design becomes desirable. Experience at the World Bank, is suited for developing and third world nations, where by reasons of their own doing, failed to developed institutions to manage and harness their economy. A read of the book, 'Confessions of an Economic Hit Man', helps to shed light on that institution.

Twice Minister of Finance, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, is someone that has enjoyed experience of a not-for-profit making institution and an organization supported my membership subscriptions and rounding of monies to lend to unsuspecting nations at rates that does not strengthen them but strangulates them. The first time around when Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, was appointed by President Obasanjo, Nigerians hailed her coming as having being sanctioned by US; how unfortunate, as a way to rescue and straighten Nigeria finance ministry and economy. While that may have some element of truth, I doubt, Obasanjo just like Jonathan, is a person persuaded by one having being abroad regardless if their education and experience has no collateral value.

Most past Nigeria finance ministers have been persons that spotted PhDs, and often with foreign education except of course, Mr. Charles Soludo, a local bred from UNN - University of Nigeria Nsukka. First Nigeria Finance Minister, late Festus Okotie Eboh, was a book-keeper turned finance minister in Balewa's mostly transaction leadership that saw no need for transformation. No wonder, Festus confused all and went down in Nigeria history as the most corrupt because at a time, he pocked more than 10% of Nigeria annual budget that were then in the tens of millions.

Back to Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, when appointed by Obasanjo, her whole disposition was getting paid in dollars and getting free hand to set policies. Obasanjo timidly agreed but nothing tangible nor collateral emerged. Here is a comparison. In the late 1990's, the naira vs. dollar exchange rate, was less than N100 to $1, partly due to 'smart accounting' orchestrated by Abacha. Nigeria achieved the highest foreign reserve than any other administration during Abacha; surprise surprise!!. Since there is a direct impact of foreign reserve to the value of a hardly convertible currency such as the Naira, Nigeria enjoyed longer current account period which strengthened the naira value. But in a free for all civil rule starting with Obasanjo in 1999, Naira exchange rate jumped to its current level of about N155 to $1. A perennial loss of about 50% that no administration since 1999, has been able to address.

Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala in her first attempt under Obasanjo, was unable to bring the Naira to the late 1990s level despite the dance and song about her experience and abilities. I do not think she can because her experience does not speak to mastery of pragmatic financing structures needed for a developing nation. But more of one that enjoys the undue reputation the World Bank, her employer, has especially among underdeveloped and developing nations, and she rides that reputation as a 'Messiah Come to Justice'.

Until Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, through vigorous pursuits of policies to minimize waste in Nigeria government, works with the Central Bank to bring the naira/dollar exchange rate to less than N90, to show a better rate than Abacha era rate, the undue superior attention paid her by Mr. Jonathan is unfounded and uncalled for. Such attention will only lead to friction and conflicts among the cabinet members with serious resentment.

Let her earn the respect of Nigerians doing something to enhance the financial well being of the nation. And I hope this time around, if she is relieved of her duty, she does not run back to Washington DC, for another desk job. If she believes in Nigeria as she believes in the salary and benefits she is paid, she should stay back and make it happen. It is rather an irony that after serving as a Finance Minister; first time, of the world's most populous nation, she could not or did not start a consulting firm so she can earn a living selling her experience instead she wanted a desk job.

Nigeria - We Hail Thee: But it is about time persons are appointed who can tell Mr. President what it will take to move Nigeria forward and not those that parade degrees and experience of World Bank, UN and IMF, as if such experience trumps everyone else. No, it does not. But in a country where there is an insatiable love for foreign content, some gain those at all cost because they know, it gets them somewhere. Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala should be celebrated if she can deliver. And by the way, she is not the first African to hold reputable position at the World Bank. A Zimbabwean born person in 1996, was head of the African section of the World Bank. And present Ivorien President, was the first notable African to serve at IMF. With all that, how come Africans remain the only persons in the world that borrow money at rates higher than 20%? If knowledge and experience are germane to nation buildings, what do Africans miss when it is time to serve their native country?

For Mr. President, treat Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala like everyone else in your cabinet. My late mom could do a better job managing Nigeria Ministry of Finance, were she given the opportunity. Oh Well, we will never know because she is happily rested in the Lord. And I hear her say, 'I could do better.'

By Ejike E Okpa ii

The Okpa Co.
Dallas, Texas.

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