Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Finance Minister spoke with Katie Couric of Yahoo! News on the sideline of the just concluded World Economic Forum on Africa held in Abuja, May 7-10, 2014.
During the interview, she responded to questions asked on insecurity in the country, abduction of Chibok girls, unemployment, the country’s economy among other issues.
Katie Couric: Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala is Nigeria’s Finance Minister named recently as one of Time’s most influential people. I know that Abuja as we are talking is hosting the World Economic Forum on Africa right now, are you concerned about how the image of Nigeria is being projected all around the world at a time when you are trying to encourage Western investors?
The WEFA has just ended and it has been a success for the girls. Over 1,000 participants were in attendance – world leaders as well as global business leaders as well as African business leaders. And they came to show that they would stand against terror. That they will not accept that people can abduct girls and stop their education.
Specific initiatives also came out of the WEFA. There is a Safe Schools Initiative where Nigerian businesses have come forward in collaboration with Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of Britain, to set up an initiative supported by business to set up safe schools for the girls and they said if the government matches them they put up 10 million dollars immediately, they will use it to launch this initiative. The president of Nigeria has announced that he will match that immediately.
That is over and above all the efforts of the government so far to try and protect the schools better. So a specific initiative, solidarity of the international community and global business, with the girls and a very large turnout. This is the second largest World Economic Forum turnout outside of Davos, according to WEF itself. So it has been a success for the girls and solidarity for Nigeria.
Katie Couric: Let’s talk about the more pressing matter of the nearly three hundred girls who are still missing. There has been a tidal wave of criticism about the Nigerian government’s response to these kidnappings, are you confident that President Jonathan’s administration has done or is doing all it can to rescue these girls?
The President has openly pledged his commitment to do everything to rescue these girls, and what I said before on CNN is accepting that the government did not communicate what it was doing previously, because there was some element of reticence so as not to cause harm to the girls. That should not have been the case, it should have been that there was communication so that the Nigerian public and the parents of these girls know that action is being taken. Since that time the government has stepped up action, has appealed to the international community for help and is accepting help from the US, France, the UK, China and they are all coming in. The government has stepped up the number of troops that are working there and is working with countries that have satellite imagery to do more.
Katie Couric: Are you confident that the girls will be found, where are they, because it’s been rumoured that many of them have been taken across the border to Chad?
Katie, no one can answer that question. There is no one who can tell you with confidence. What we can tell you is that every single possible resource will be used to track these girls. You are dealing with people who are irrational. It is unacceptable that girls should be taken anywhere in the world, and they do not represent any religion, as you have heard many muslims have rejected what they have done. You have heard Prime Minister Cameron said this is not a Nigerian problem, it is a global problem. You have heard President Obama said we should stand against these terrorists. This is a global problem, we need to come together and fight against it and Nigeria is accepting any help it can do with.
Katie Couric: How trustworthy is President Goodluck Jonathan? Why do the families seem to know where the girls are but the government does not? (Question from tweets)
I’m not sure that characterization is correct, I think we should view this in a much more complex manner. The President said they searched in the Sambisa forest, they were not using aerial surveillance, they were not able to find the girls. This is a large area and it is not clear whether they are still together in a group or whether they have been split up, and the whole idea is that nothing should be done to harm the girls. In the past, the country has used some aerial surveillance but you can’t do that because you don’t want to end up harming the girls.
So the characterization that the parents know more than the government, I don’t want to enter into that because I have to tell you I’m not a security expert. But I can only tell you that much that I know and that is to share with you the commitment of the government and the country and the solidarity of the people coming together on this issue of bringing back the girls.
Katie Couric: Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala do you have daughters?
I have a daughter, I have four children. That is why I came out to say it is unacceptable, it is unimaginable that anyone would take these children. Anyone who has children, sons or daughters, one of the most unbelievable thing is the agony of not knowing where your loved one is. My mother was kidnapped in mid December 2012, and for five agonizing days we did not know where she was. I have actually experienced it; this is not from theory, it is one of the most terrible nightmares you could dream about. So, for me, it is deep pain and depression to know that for their mothers who are waiting, these are our daughters and we have to get them back.
Katie Couric: As Finance Minister I know that this week your ambition is to promote vast growth and current economic opportunity that exists in Nigeria, in fact the nation now leads the entire African continent in terms of GDP, but an estimated 62% of the population live in extreme poverty, do you believe this income inequality and lack of resources particularly in the North is contributing to the rise and recruitment power of Boko Haram?
First of all the problem of inequality is something that the entire world is struggling with. There is this new book by Thomas Piketty Capitalism in the 21st Century. That is the whole thesis, that there is the problem of inequality all over the world. 95% of the recent growth of the US was captured by 1% of the people. So this is again a global problem that we all need to learn from each other. Inequality is a major challenge in the growth story of the whole of Africa and Nigeria. And that is what we are working at, we do not want to grow with leaving more people behind, we want to change the quality of that growth. And I think the crux of that matter is creating jobs, people here do not want handouts, they want us to create decent jobs. The government is really working hard at improving agriculture, studies have shown that if you improve agriculture you are able to tackle poverty three times better and faster.
We are working on that; we are turning around agriculture and we are launching the housing sector to create jobs. We need 1.8 milllion jobs in the country, we are still creating 1.6 million; we are still falling short plus we have the pool of the unemployed. The biggest focus in alleviating poverty in Nigeria is creating jobs. The second is improving human development indicators which are not very good. Maternal mortality, infant mortality rate, children out of school these are things we are focusing on to get our resources to the level where we use them effectively to deal with these problems.
Katie Couric: I know you also deeply believe in the importance of girls’ education. Just last year the World Bank released a study on the importance of women to the growth and vitality of the African continent in general. Though the majority is small farmers, trade merchants, healthcare workers, educators. So how are you going to stop these extremists who want women to stop going to school and getting jobs?
Katie we are going to stop the extremists with a multi-prong approach. It is not a simple thing; there is the military angle, the insurgency angle, the political angle that has to be pursued and also there is the development angle where we have to give our young people hope and make sure that their school is not interfered with, that they feel more secure. All these things have to be done. But it is not easy fighting these acts of terrorism, if it was easy you will not find them cropping up all over the world. You will not see Afghanistan, or Pakistan or even the recent bombing in the US, the Boston Marathon. You will not see two or three decades of the Irish Republican army fighting in the UK; they were not able to defeat them despite the sophistication of the UK at the time. And it took a long time and political negotiation for it to end.
This kind of warfare is not standard, it’s not the kind you move soldiers and then go and face the people face to face. It is a war of attrition and opportunity, it can crop up in any place in the world, and that is why President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have well articulated it by saying this is a war for all of us. So we have to join hands and join resources. I think we need the help of modern technology, human insurgency and intelligence experts to also help us. This is not going to be won by conventional means.
Katie Couric: Finally, before we go, on the streets of Nigeria as you well know and all around the world, people are posting #BringBackOurGirls. As a representative of the Nigerian government and a female global leader what would you say to the millions of people who are so frustrated and upset by the situation in your country?
I would say we in Nigeria are also frustrated and upset. A friend of mine tweeted me holding #BringBackOurGirls. We need to move beyond that into more action, that is what the world is asking for.
I think we should focus on what Nigerians are asking for. We are deeply frustrated, all of us are. We have to move beyond that to not let the work of the terrorists paralyse us. What I want to say to the world is don’t let the work of the terrorists create division. Criticize, but do not let it create division.
This is a time that we need to come together as a world community to stand with Nigerians and Nigerians to stand together not apart in order to fight. This is what the terrorists want, they want criticism, they want names to be called, they want frustration, they want people to be divided and then they will win. If we stand together as a world community and focus on the girls and bringing them back and we show the terrorists that terror will not win and then they will fail.