Fixing the Unfixable Nigeria: Ngozi’s top job
NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA is a woman who speaks her mind. Just over a year into her second stint as Nigeria’s finance minister, she has written a new book that she describes as a road map for low-income oil-exporting countries and poor countries committed to reform. If she really does have an effective road map, no country needs it more than Nigeria.
In this section
Paying a price for doing what’s right
Aching, shaking, crazy cold
»Ngozi’s big job
Between the mid-1970s and 2001 Nigeria earned more than $300 billion from crude oil and accumulated $30 billion of debt to the Paris Club of state creditors. Nigeria’s dependence on oil had not led to better living standards for the people, but was instead pocketed by a powerful elite, a trend that continues. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s book launch coincided with the release of a new report on rot in Nigeria’s oil industry: corrupt deals between government officials, the state oil company and oil majors are conservatively estimated to have cost Nigerians $35 billion over the last ten years.
To give muscle to her 2003 reform plan, which was endorsed by the then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala put together a team of 12 technocrats—and things began to change. According to her book, the budget leaked less and spending stabilised as the government managed to save surplus revenues, cushioning the country against volatility in the oil price. Hundreds of state enterprises were privatised. GSM mobile-phone licences were granted to three operators, which triggered a boom in the telecoms industry; Nigeria now has 100m registered SIM cards. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala also reformed pension schemes and consolidated banks by reducing the number of lenders and raising their capital base. Her chief achievement was to convince creditors that Nigeria deserved debt relief. The Paris Club agreed a package worth $18 billion, which went a long way towards helping to turn the economy around.
Mrs Okonjo-Iweala is not just a trumpet-blower. She is honest about the limits of reform. Trying to cut petrol subsidies led to widespread deadly protests in 2004. “This was one of my lowest points in the three-year reform effort,” she recalls. Customs reform was “an outright failure”, as was reform of the civil service.
“But did the reforms launch Nigeria on a path of sustainable growth and development?” the author asks. “The jury is still out.” Economic growth, which averaged 3% in the 1990s, leapt to 7% after the reforms began. But there is a long way to go yet. In the book’s bleak final pages Mrs Okonjo-Iweala concedes that Nigeria has some of the world’s worst human-development indicators and looks unlikely to meet its health and education goals. However, she declares: “Perseverance does pay off.” Most of Nigeria’s 160m people will be hoping she is right.
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