My elementary maths certainly disproves the notion that two wrongs don’t make a right. After all, multiplying two negative integers only yields a positive one. However, on an issue that pitches my self-interest as a struggling Nigerian with the self-interest of the honourable minister of finance, arithmetic has little to with the schematics of right and wrong. As such I have to be forward with this: I am selfish but so also is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala!
By now it’s no longer news that she’s been endorsed by some African nations for the presidency of the World Bank. While this would be big for her ever-rising career, the big ask is where her decision places us, Nigerians, in her scheme of thought. First of all, let me place myself in her shoes. However uncomfortable her stilettoes may be, the fact remains that when you commit your allegiance to a cause you should see it through – to the end. As a personal decision it is in the best interest of her curriculum vitae to take the World Bank offer but that would only mean that the cheap talk of letting go of her position in Washington to serve her motherland, fight corruption and lift the nation forward with her Ivy League ideologies was all a blithering rant. Service to Nigeria, then, must have been no more than a fill-in-the-blank stopgap to bigger roles. But ‘bigger’ is not always ‘better’ as any economist will tell you. She must recognise the anticipation and glad hand with which her appointment to the ministry of finance was met across the federation. For the most part Nigerians were very pleased. Some even said that was the only sensible appointment Mr Goodluck Jonathan made in his cabinet. We were even willing to indulge her tardy resumption to the executive council while she claimed she was clearing her desk in the US. At the induction ceremony Mr Jonathan was practically drooling with joy at the fact that she accepted his offer to work with him.
It’s been about one year now and the one tangible – and I do not use that word lightly – effect that we can experience from her tenure is higher price of petroleum products and a consequent inflation in market prices of most commodities. Early this year, this led to a string of protests across the nation which some chose to label as ‘Occupy Nigeria’. The protests may not have had the exact trappings of Occupy Wall Street but it certainly would have begot mock feeling of déjà vu to Mrs Okonjo-Iweala. The World Bank may not be directly responsible for the economic slump in the West but as people gathered in the streets of Manhattan the difference between investment banking and capital banking was vague, very vague. In large part, I reckon the removal of fuel subsidies, the brainchild of Ms Okonjo-Iweala, was a well-meaning attempt to rid the nation of a major source for defalcating government money. Having said that, it must also be put in context that such a policy is not one whose impact can be seen in the short term. It requires patience on the part of Nigerians, a message the Minister has been apt to preach on numerous occasions. If anything then we expect that the mastermind waits out the ‘patient phase’ of her policies along with us. It’s been only four months and now what? She bails. Apparently, her itinerary says her next port of call is the presidency of World Bank. That leaves us to wonder if she is no more than a raking opportunist, pursuing a personal project to expand her legacy. I am also forced to consider the viewpoint of a former boss of mine, very opinionated, who asserts that Westerners take the ‘weak’ amongst us, Africans, and give them mouth-watering appointments while they call the shot from behind the scene. As wild as that may sound, a minister leaving a job after making some potentially atrocious reforms only lends credence to that viewpoint. Ms Okonjo-Iweala must realize that Nigeria has always had a problem with continuity. As leaders change so do their policies and focus. For Ms Okonjo-Iweala, corruption is best tackled by removing fuel subsidies; to whoever replaces her it might be the reverse. Wouldn’t that be taking one step forward and two backwards, even as the man on the street struggles to understand why sachet water is now N10?
Then I am curious. Who in Nigeria recommended Ms Okonjo? I was very aware of the campaign by many groups on twitter and facebook clamouring that Barack Obama chose Jeffery Sachs who seemed to have a credible academic and practical standing. I had my reservations about Mr Sachs but none of it was related to the fact that he was going to be bailing out on a commitment he had recently made, not especially one that would directly impinge on the wellbeing of an entire nation. With Ms Okonjo it is vague. I’ve long known an Okonjo-Iweala-For-President group on facebook but I am positive the target is Nigerian presidency not the World Bank’s. Headlines suddenly sprouted talking about Nigeria and South Africa (a member of the famous BRICS) having a joint candidate in the person of Ms Okonjo-Iweala. Soon there was talk of Namibia, the African Union and a league of other people endorsing her candidacy. While that must be all too fascinating and enchanting for Nigeria, a country which still prides itself in Emeka Anyaoku’s headship of the Commonwealth of Nation, we must ask Nigerian leaders and led what their take is on this. Should they be negatively stunned? Yes, if you asked me. Her appointment last year came with a lot of drama. There were insinuations that Mr President indulged her tad too much. Certain reports suggested she was effectively in charge of the executive council, calling the shots on how funds should be ring-fenced even as other ministers sulked. To such ministers her departure might very well be greeted with good riddance but to Mr President this must be betrayal. For a zoologist, the intricacies of the economics parlance of government bonds, interest rates, and so on must have been a little abstruse. Ms Okonjo-Iweala broke it down in simple tenses and policies and, coming from a World Bank veteran, it just had to be right, no? So his reaction to her candidacy must be disgust. Yet, ironically, Nigeria first endorsed it! Mr President had to have presented her as ‘our’ candidate. She is jilting him and he isn’t lovelorn? Surely, he must believe a Nigerian heading the World Bank would portend better lot for Nigeria – and, surely, someone dear to the president must have convinced His Excellency of such gibberish.
Now, it’s not that we don’t have a replacement for Ms Okonjo-Iweala. Nigeria is blessed with many captains of industry, who could fittingly serve as minister of finance. Additionally, many Nigerians would gladly accept her resignation letter. I just think it’s selfish that a nation invests so much trust and aspiration in a person and at the next sight of a greener pasture she leaves – or indicates an intention to leave – them in a lurch. It must be said that Ms Okonjo-Iweala is only here to fast-forward her career. The chance that she actually gets the job is slim – very slim going by the status quo of World Bank appointments. The American choice would most likely get the job but the episode would have taught us a crucial lesson that Ms Okonjo-Iweala has her mind resolved to help Nigeria but not her heart.