By Undung Pam
The Nigerian political environment is largely toxic and not many who have served as public officers, especially in positions of authority and influence, come out without a stain on their reputation. The institutional weaknesses, social and political pressures push many people with little or no integrity to abuse their offices, loot public funds and indulge in all manner of corrupt acts. This tragically seems to be the story of many persons who have had the privilege to play key roles in the political leadership and governance of this country at the federal, state and local government level today. Sadly, Nigerians have come to associate all public servants with corruption.
The truth however is, there are exceptions. There are indeed a significant number of Nigerians who in spite of this negative context made a deliberate decision to serve this country with integrity, honesty that is fired by a strong sense of patriotism and a sincere desire to impact positively on the lives of Nigerians. And it will be totally unfair to this scarce breed – which includes the internationally celebrated former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, if Nigerians fail to acknowledge their exemplary conduct and celebrate them as national models of integrity. No country makes concrete ethical progress in the area of youth mentorship, building a culture of discipline and ethics when it fails to recognize and celebrate those who against all odds displayed a strong sense of principle, integrity and personal discipline.
That politics or governance is dirty does not mean that good people should simply refuse the call to national service. That will be a disaster. It is a proven fact in governance that even in the most corrupt governments, it is possible for brilliant and outstanding individuals to within their defined areas of influence take actions that will at least kick start the process of change.
Those who think that the stable must be completely clean before the good guys come in are only living in a utopia. Because, who do such people expect would start the process of cleaning the stable? The corrupt people who benefit from the rot? It will never happen.
Truth is, if good people, with the courage and integrity, who got the chance to challenge the system from the inside had refused to get involved in government to drive positive change in some specific areas that they have direct influence, the significant marks of improvements that we have witnessed as a nation in the last decade or so would not have been possible. It would have been a pathetic story all the way across all sectors. But thanks to this small but impactful group, there is indeed something to celebrate, a foundation to build on and models for states to copy.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former Minister of Finance under the Jonathan administration represents for me and many objective Nigerians a good example of someone who made such strategic impact on our polity, rode against the tide of supposedly ‘normal’ conduct and maintained an impregnable integrity in a very tough and challenging Nigerian political environment.
Her choice as a point of reference for this rare breed of incorruptible Nigerians is apt because as Finance Minister for over ten years under the administration of Obasanjo Jonathan, Okonjo-Iweala occupied a very influential office but refused to corruptly enrich herself, while constantly battling those who wanted to compromise her and loot the treasury.
This is a fact. The Governors who served during those periods whom she related with and assessed their loan requests; the National Assembly Finance Committee Members – in the House and Senate – whom she related with during the budgeting process know fully well that she was a unique Minister of Finance. They may not come out to attest to this publicly, but in their hearts they know that Okonjo-Iweala was a straight shooter who did not tolerate any underhand dealings.
For someone who was in charge of the nation’s finances for a period that spans over a decade, in a country where directors of finance in ministries or states own palatial mansions and assets in choice countries around the globe, indulge in a lifestyle of opulence and sickening luxury, Okonjo-Iweala has remained her simple, humble, adire and scarf wearing self.
What is most important to her is the security of her earnings from her career and a professional reputation which she treasures as her most important asset.
And this is why I consider as plain daylight evil the attempts by some persons who cannot match her at the level of integrity, people whom she blocked from looting public funds but now have some kind of cover in the new government are leveraging on the general public perception of political appointees as corrupt, distorting facts to paint her as the complete opposite of who she truly is. Nigerians must never give into this blackmail and the President Muhammadu Buhari in his drive to deepen accountability and rid the country of corruption, must firmly resist the attempts by these vested individuals to hijack the spirit of the moment and execute vendetta against good and distinguished Nigerians like Okonjo-Iweala. That will be a grave error.
The President should know that beyond the media spin, the series of attacks being hurled at her by the likes of Oshiomhole are part of this grand scheme to get back at the former Minister for her tough stance against corruption. And the media war against her is not going to abate anytime soon. If anything, it will become even more strident. The speed, consistency and recurring arguments indicate that this is a well thought-out and funded campaign that is being strategically played out to diminish her rising international profile. It appears from every indication that these people are not happy that in spite of her years of service to the country, and with all the issues in the press, Okonjo-Iweala had managed to keep her integrity intact and is being seen by the world as a brilliant reformer and dedicated public servant who spearheaded efforts to stabilize and grow Nigeria’s economy, battling widespread government corruption and creating greater fiscal transparency and discipline.
There is no doubt that she exited the scene at the time the economy came under serious pressure as a result of the steep fall in oil prices. A development that took public attention from the progress that she had made in moving the economy forward. What such people forget is that before the price fall, the Nigerian economy was getting good ratings as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The country would have fared better in spite of the oil crisis if those same people who are attacking her had heeded her advice to save and not resorted to constitutional legality to frustrate her. Remember, we went through this type of situation 2008 without feeling the pinch simply because we had over $28bn in the ECA as a buffer to see us through. When Okonjo-Iweala came back again in 2011, she met less than $3bn in the ECA and built it up to $9bn. This figure was reduced to $3bn by the time the oil price fall set simply because the Governors insisted through a case against the Federal Government that the monies be shared. Opportunistic political rhetoric should not replace historical facts. Okonjo-Iweala maintained her integrity and helped to impact positively on the lives of Nigerians in so many areas and deserves to be celebrated not maligned or persecuted.
First she left an economy that has been institutionally strengthened to grow in the most impactful and all inconclusive manner. Before now growth was largely driven by the oil & gas sector. This sort of growth was not inclusive and could not generate sufficient jobs. It is to her credit today that we have the Nigeria Mortgage Refinance Company (NMRC) to ignite growth of the housing sector and the Development Bank of Nigeria (DBN) to also stimulate the growth of small businesses. While the NMRC – a public but private sector led company – is set to grow the mortgage/housing market by providing up to 20 year mortgages at affordable rates to Nigerians, the Development Bank of Nigeria, also a public but private sector led bank will stimulate the growth of small businesses by providing up to ten year loans at rates that are far below what currently obtains in the commercial lending market today. The NMRC’s target is to provide over 200,000 affordable mortgages to Nigerians in five years while the DBN has the potential to increase the GDP contribution of small businesses by an additional 30% within five years.
These two institutions were designed to tackle the perennial problem of finance which has kept the growth of these two critical sectors of the economy down for decades. The housing and small sectors are best known as engines of growth with strong capacity for inclusive growth, job creation and poverty reduction. And finance is of course the oil that is required to make them roar to life.
It is also to the credit of Okonjo-Iweala that the country now has the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). Before her there was none. She championed the need to establish the fund which has three components: Stability Fund, infrastructure Fund and Future Generation Fund to help protect the economy against future shocks and provide for future generations of Nigerians. It is indeed an institutional vehicle for saving oil proceeds through strategic investments in critical sectors of the economy. Even with a limited take off fund of $1billion, the fund is helping to finance in partnership with Julius Berger the Second Niger Bridge and the Lagos – Ibadan Expressway.
In addition, her insistence and introduction of the Government Integrated Financial Management and Information system (GIFMIS) has improved the acquisition, allocation, utilization and conservation of public financial resources, using automated and integrated, effective, efficient and economic information systems. Personnel costs are being reduced through the integrated payroll and personnel information system (IPPIS). Over N139.6 billion has been saved and 46,821 ghost workers identified through IPPIS. With the Treasury Single Account (TSA) structure of government bank accounts, there is now a consolidated view of the cash position; 93 MDAs are currently on TSA and over government has gone from an overdraft of N102 billion in 2011 to an average credit balance of over N100billion in 2014.
Okonjo-Iweala has done a good job as the Coordinating Minister for the Economy. She fought for savings to mitigate the situation that we have found ourselves in today as a result of falling oil prices but she is also working real hard to deal with it and has publicly stated that it is an opportunity to further diversify our revenue base. It is rather sad that enemies of progress are using the situation to impugn her reputation. The truth however is that, falsehood can never overwhelm truth no matter how many times it is repeated.
Undung Pam is a social commentator contributing from Jos, Plateau State.