It must be a leadership at once selfless and public-spirited; a leadership able to combine ideas and power, intellectualism and politics.â€™ â€” Prof. Ben Nwabueze. I opened my copy of The Guardian last Monday, 20 February, and encountered refreshingly cheering news. On pages 53 to 61 were three invaluable documents, published by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance. The first was the breakdown of the subsidy savings for January 2012 allocated to the Federal, states, and local governments. The second was a breakdown of distribution of revenue allocation to the Federal Government by the Federation Account Allocation Committee. The third was the distribution of revenue allocation to state and local governments over the same period.
This action was in keeping with the ministerâ€™s promise when the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P) was inaugurated that the process of the implementation of the programme would be transparent and accountable. Even so, as I was carefully reading these documents, I turned over in my mind a television image in the heat of the â€˜anti-subsidy removalâ€™ battle last January. It was during the proceedings of the House of Representative Ad Hoc Committee on Petroleum Subsidy. Dr Okonjo-Iweala was being grilled by the committee members over her ministryâ€™s role in the affair.
One of them wanted to know how she felt knowing that the Jonathan governmentâ€™s sudden decision to de-regulate the market for premium motor spirit had triggered nationwide protests resulting in the death of several Nigerian youths.
It was a tense and emotional moment. But then, Dr Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director of the World Bank, is no stranger to tense and emotional situations, given the frontline role the bank has taken since the mid-1980s to restructure the economies of developing countries along more efficient market lines. Visibly distraught, Okonjo-Iweala explained that she was a Nigerian very much as her questioners, and that the suggestion that she did not fail the pain ordinary Nigerians were undergoing at that trying moment was, to say the least, grossly unfair.
Usually cool, sober-headed, and urbane, the Finance Ministerâ€™s emotional defence of her position suggested a personality grappling with immense emotional and intellectual challenges; a public official deeply questioning the value of personal sacrifice and public service when those being served neither understood nor appreciated the depth and quality of the sacrifice.
All manner of false and frivolous accusations had flooded the daily newspapers and social media, casting doubt on the ministerâ€™s integrity and patriotism. It was said that she singlehandedly foisted the subsidy removal policy on President Jonathan and the Federal Executive Council. False. It was said she had threatened to resign her office if the President reversed himself on the policy. Patently false. It was even said that she was in secret league with the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to turn Nigeria into a client-state of the Fund for the benefit of the Western countries. Yet another false story. In the heat of the moment, these stories, without the slightest morsel of truth, donned the toga of fact and further served to heat up the polity.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at the receiving end of it all, found no brave and impartial interlocutors to speak up for the defence of truth and basic decency. Her outburst at the House of Representatives proceedings is therefore understandable.
And yet, there are deeper lessons to be learnt from this event. If nothing else, the unfair savaging of one of Africaâ€™s finest finds, voted one of the worldâ€™s one hundred most influential public intellectuals by Foreign Policy magazine in 2011, by the Nigerian media illustrates the dilemma true and tested technocrats face when they elect to deploy their brains and skills in the service of the country. Public policy, properly understood, is all about a government making choices out of a limited menu of options. The benefit of certain policies, and the hard social and economic realities that inform them, are usually not obvious to the generality of the citizenry, who in any case are not trained to fully comprehend these matters.
The situation becomes even more worrisome when the policy choice has to visit hardship on these citizens for the foreseeable future, before the gains begin to manifest.
This was the situation with the fuel subsidy removal policy. The fundament of the Jonathan governmentâ€™s argument is that the removal of the subsidy would remove price distortions in that market and encourage private investors to build their own refineries, a process that would not only crash the price of premium motor spirit in the long term but also end the involvement of the government in domestic refining, an activity in which it has proved patently incompetent. Even so, the notion of government â€˜having no business in businessâ€™, fervently promoted by neo-liberal intellectuals in Africa since the mid-1980s, need to be rebutted.
Countries as diverse as China, France and Brazil have government-owned corporations that are not only efficiently run, but also return profits to the public exchequer. The case of Nigeria is different for two main reasons.
One, the Federal Government, having seized the countryâ€™s oil exports, the main source of external revenue, since the end of the civil war in 1970, has slowly but relentlessly transformed Nigeria into a rentier state where citizens are rewarded not because of their productivity but their ability to worm themselves into a vital government agency through which they proceed to appropriate their own share of the oil bonanza.
Second, the very idea of â€˜Nigeriaâ€™ and the social and political basis of the Nigerian state are still very much contested issues, assailed by ethnic, regional and religious forces. The consequence of this vicious contest, led in the main by amoral and uncultured elites, is that every government agency, no matter how obscure or inconsequential, becomes a terrain for struggle for public resources by private actors masquerading as â€˜public servants.â€™ Looting, not efficiency and productivity, are given primary consideration.
Why did the Nigeria Airways, Nigeria Railway Corporation, Nigeria National Shipping Line - the list of dodos is indeed endless â€“ collapse? Quite simple actually â€“ because the implacable combined logic of the rentier culture, and the raging battle to define and possess the Nigerian state, wormed themselves into these ministries and corporations and rendered them comatose. They were looted and â€˜asset strippedâ€™ by civil servants and their private sector collaborators and discarded.
The case for the privatization of these public corporations was therefore informed by the imperative of taking them out of the reach of thieving public servants and converting them into privately-owned businesses governed by impersonal market forces. Now, this is precisely when Okonjo-Iweala and her fellow technocrats encountered problems. Subsidy removal and privatization of public property, which invariably results in price increases and the massive transfer of wealth from public to private hands is a tricky business, and always results in resistance from a citizenry now used to low prices.
The Nigerian case is further complicated when it is realized that since the country slipped into economic recession in 1982 following the end of the oil boom and the massive looting that attended the NPN-led Second Republic, no government in the country has succeeded in actually generating new jobs and improving the social and economic condition of the citizenry.
The Structural Adjustment Programme, designed by the IMF and imposed on the country by General Babangida in 1986, proved a colossal failure, unable to re-galvanize the real sector, industrialize the economy and create employment. Despite the advent of civilian rule since 1999, the rate of poverty has been rising, not decreasing. Over 90 percent of the populace now live below the official poverty line.
The Jonathan government, in deciding to remove fuel subsidies, designed the SURE Programme as an antidote to the trust deficit that had been built up over the years by a cynical citizenry who now know that most senior civil servants are in public service to feather their own nests. All monies realized, President Jonathan promised, would be transparently ploughed into road construction, health provision, and sundry social services in a process supervised by well-known Nigerians of impeccable repute. But the government had no anti-dote for the raging poverty in the land and how this would square with the inflationary spiral the subsidy removal would trigger, imposing yet new hardships on an already bedraggled citizenry.
The governmentâ€™s case was also not helped by the 2012 budget in which recurrent expenditure and lavish provisions for civil servants accounted for the lionâ€™s share, thus providing ammunition for critics who rightly pointed out that the cost of governance was too high.
It is important that it be stated that neither the trust deficit nor the raging poverty in the land was caused by Dr Okonjo-Iweala. But she was called upon as the Coordinating Minister of the Economy to provide a miraculous solution to these obstacles in the way of the subsidy removal policy overnight. Her dilemma is shared by Dr Sam Amadi, chairman of the National Electricity Regulation Commission (NERC) and the officials in NNPC charged with growing the domestic gas market.
For regular and adequate electricity and gas to be supplied to the domestic market in a peculiarly Nigerian condition where corrupt civil servants have signally failed to run public corporations profitably like their Chinese counterparts, the subsidy regime in these sectors has to go for private business to come in.
This dilemma of Okonjo-Iweala and Nigerian technocrats, saddled with political bosses unable to create the social conditions in which public support for tough policy decisions can be mobilized, actually began way back in 1972 when Abdul Atta, the brilliant â€˜superâ€™ permanent secretary in the Ministry of Finance in General Gowonâ€™s administration took the country into OPEC and created the Nigerian National Oil Corporation (NNOC), to grow Nigeriaâ€™s share of oil profits and also pave the way for indigenous participation and control of the industry. The young NNOC went about recruiting brilliant and capable Nigerian technocrats knowledgeable in the intricacies of the industry. However, the patriotic efforts of these technocrats were subsequently sabotaged by the civil servants and politicians around Gowon who were not only anxious to protect the interests of the International Oil Corporations but also feather their own nests.
The mess that is todayâ€™s NNPC has its origin in the bruising turf battles and corrupt practices of these actors, a struggle that actually precipitated the Murtala Muhammed coup of July 1975.
The media attacks on the person of Okonjo-Iweala is therefore as unproductive as it is wrong-headed. If anything, what should be the focus of public interest at the moment is generating a public debate on an appropriate development policy for Nigeria in these perilous times. The last time Nigerians had a proper debate of this sort was in 1985-1986 when Babangida seized power and asked for a public debate on whether the country should accept an IMF loan with its harsh conditions and if not, what the home-grown alternative should be. Nigerians overwhelmingly rejected the IMF package, but Babangida went ahead and implemented them all the same, with continuing gruesome consequences for a now impoverished citizenry.
Professor Ben Nwabueze, the great thinker and constitutional lawyer, has always urged that â€˜the national economy be controlled in such a way as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom, and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity.â€™ I have always argued for an economic model and a development policy, founded on the Welfare State, that will secure these worthy goals. The present challenge is to generate enough public support, through the right mix of politics and deployment of intellect, to bring this about in our country.
*Dr Okonta is Coordinating Fellow, New Centre for Social Research (new-centre.org), an Abuja-based policy think tank.
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OMOTAYO, J. A. Lagos, NIGERIA March 17, 2012
This article distorts the facts perhaps due to ignorance or selfish interest on the part of the writer. Why? I shall deal with one issue to save time and space. Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attended the Nigerian Economic Submit of 2001 as an observer. Subsequently, she became an unofficial economic adviser to both Messrs Philip Asiodu and Olusegun Obasanjo.
Ultimately, she became the arrow head of Mr. Obasanjo's economic policy. During this period, new Naira notes (N100, N200, N500 & N1000) were introduced. We note that although she was out of office when N1000 came out, the idea was part of her total economic package. Money supply to the country grew from N192 billion by end of December 1999 to over N980 billion by end of December 2006.
Simple economics theory suffices. Increase in money supply at constant production leads to inflation. Prices of all items today are at least three times as costly as they were in 2000. Cost of running government today is about 25 times that of 1999. Recurrent Expenditure was mere N211 billion in 1999, N300 billion in 2000 (despite minimum wage increase from N2500 to N7500), today it is over N2,500 billion.
Who then is a technocrat, the one who gambles and guestimates only to plunge the nation into chaos through failed or failing policies? Transparency and accountability definitely does not end with publishing data, whether cooked or not. Our James Ibori would not have been convicted in UK if publishing budget speeches and lists /costs of contracts awarded in Delta State amounted to Transparency and Accountability. God save Nigeria.
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