I still wonder how the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and the Honourable Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala (strayed into) the eye of the storm. Her grandiose title is not a mere tautology as some people will assume. Being the first holder of that title in Nigeria’s history, her position could be seen as equivalent to Prime Minister, which gave her the mandate to oversee and superintend over every other ministry, department and agency of government including their budgetary allocations and revenue expenditures. She is invariably the next most powerful cabinet member after President Jonathan and Vice President Namadi Sambo.
In the last ten years, this writer is one of her ardent admirers who is impressed by her academic accomplishments and enviable working experiences on the international scene including her contributions to Nigeria’s economic development after her appointment as the first female Finance Minister and later first female Foreign Affairs Minister by President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003 and 2006. Though she left the administration unceremoniously over personal issues, her tenure then was a success story.
One of the major reasons some of us believe strongly in the ability of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala was the way and manner she carried major players both from the North and the South along while she was Minister of Finance between 2003 to 2006. She was never accused of discrimination or bias against any of the diverse groups of the ethnically charged and religiously polarized nation. The same will be said of her then principal, Olusegun Obasanjo who, despite some of his shortcomings will never be accused of tribalism. He is a detribalized leader and a nationalist to the core who believes strongly in the Nigeria project.
The choice of her nominees into top public appointments and even the composition of her associates cut across every segment of Nigeria including those in her Economic Team like Nasir Elrufai, Nuhu Ribadu, Bode Agusto, Dr. Mansur Mukhtar and Chukwuma Soludo among others.
Her achievements too were glaring. We recall that in 2005 she led Nigeria to striking a deal with the Paris Club, a group of bilateral creditors, to pay a portion of Nigeria’s external debt amounting US $12 billion in return for an $18 billion debt write-off.
She ensured transparency in monthly federation account allocation by the introduction of monthly publication of the disbursements in selected media. She was instrumental to helping Nigeria obtain its first ever sovereign credit rating (of BB minus) from an international ratings agency. Even when she left the government in 2006, her nongovernmental organisation, NOI Global Consulting, partnered with the Gallup Organization to introduce what may be described as the first credible opinion poll, the NOI poll, into the Nigerian polity.
With these at the background, it was not surprising that when she were reappointed by President Jonathan as Finance Minister and when she was shortlisted for the post of President of the World Bank in 2012, she received overwhelming support from all Nigerians. An online publication even claimed that some Northern Mallams were praying for her success in the mosques. Everyone at that period believed that she was a detribalized Nigerian with real-world experience of policy-making.
The reason for writing this write-up is to alert her to some disturbing trends as regards some recent appointments into top public offices in Nigeria in view of their economic and political implications. As the most powerful minister and an Igbo Princess from the Niger Delta by virtue of being a daughter of Obi of Ogwashi-Uku community in Delta State, I believe she should continue to live above board.
Recently the Yoruba Unity Forum (YUF) made some disturbing allegations of ethnic cleansing of Yoruba in federal appointments by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. Wife of the sage, Chief HID Awolowo and the retired Bishop of Akure, Rt. Rev. Bolanle Gbonigi in Ikenne Ogun State after the meeting of the forum accused the administration of systematically excluding the Yoruba nation from the federation in terms of appointments without justification. They called on the government to redress the “systematic discrimination” against the Yoruba nationality in federal appointive positions without delay, saying that the Yoruba have been getting “crumbs” from the administration.
No sooner had the Yoruba allegation been made than the Northern Senators Forum (NSF) also publicly lamented gaping marginalization against the North over appointments and promotions in the military. According to these distinguished Nigerians, there are lopsidedness in employment and postings in the Nigerian Army in favour of the Igbos, which is clearly in the breach of the principle of Federal Character.
She should be aware that many Nigerians are referring to a book, ‘Chinua Achebe Teacher of Light’ which she co-authored where she expressed bitterness about how her tribe was dealt with before, during and after the civil war and insinuating that now that she is in authority, she is determined to correct all that she perceived as injustice against her people. Some even insist that what she is doing now is promoting regional and ethnic agenda to the detriment of other groupings in Nigeria by manipulating appointments.
To drive the point home, her name has been lately mentioned as collaborating with another Igbo top ranking appointee in government to ensure the reinstallation of Ms Arunma Oteh as Director General of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) despite the glaring allegations against her and consistent calls by the National Assembly for her removal. Okonjo-Iweala stood her ground, damning all and today, Oteh remains in the position.
While the debate on Oteh’s saga was yet to subside, a coalition of youths, led by human rights activist and President of Civil Rights Congress, Shehu Sani, queried the rationale behind the appointment of a new Chairman for the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) when a northerner, Kabir Mashi was already in the position and improving the revenue base of the agency, especially VAT collection for the Federation Account. Under Mashi FIRS has continued to record steady increases in the collection of taxes that it closed the 2012 financial year with a total collection of N5 trillion where N1.8 trillion (36.07 per cent) came from non-oil taxes.
The group claimed that the committee that Okonjo-Iweala set up was a smokescreen just to give a semblance of due process and fairness whereas it was populated mainly by her Igbo kinsmen. They added that “We don’t believe there is transparency in the process, and we caution the President against the excessive ceding of his own power to the finance minister.”
They publicly criticized her (for) playing an ethnic game with many of the appointments made in the country since she returned to the saddle. Some of the other positions, they alleged, which were created and filled during this period include those of Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), Sovereign Wealth Fund, Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) and even the recent appointment of a 40 year old lady as Director General of National Pension Commission (PENCOM).
People are wondering at the coincidence of only Igbos beating every other person at competitive interviews conducted by her nominated international consulting groups. The only semblance of federal character principle in some of those institutions is the appointment of ceremonious but temporary chairmen who are merely figure-heads, with mandates for mere advisory roles.
The use of catchy phrases such as “best brains,” “foreign trained,” and “foreign-based” to deprive qualified, competent and experienced Nigerians to aspire to top positions is quite inimical to the progress of our nation. The erroneous impression that some competitive and sensitive positions can only be filled by unique intelligent tribes must be corrected.
Experiences have shown that in practical situations, some so-called foreign trained and bookish first class graduates could not do better than other Nigerians who have the competence and experience to prove their worth in most difficulty terrains.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala should also note that blatant disregard to the sensitivities and sensibilities of others while arrogantly promoting only people from her tribe may expose them to hatred with potentially explosive consequences such as those experienced in the 1960s when most federal positions were occupied by a particular tribal group.
For those of us who still respect the Hon Minister of Finance and Economic Development, we strongly believe she should dissociate herself from current allegations of ‘biafranization’ of top public offices in Nigeria. We are in democratic government where policy issues should not be done in a dictatorial manner of ‘we-are-now-in-power’.
I therefore urge her to ensure that appointments into important positions should be done in credible and transparent manners that can withstand public scrutiny. I believe strongly that only those that mean well will dare to tell the truth on the general feeling in the country.