24th November, 2011
When news came in that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had been appointed minister of Finance and coordinator National Economic Management Team, a lot of people rejoiced because it was widely held that the newly elected President had gone for a very competent finance expert to lead the financial affairs of the county.
It is easy to understand such feelings. Our own Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is, after all, a managing director of the World Bank and was educated at Harvard. She has a PhD in Regional Economics and Development from MIT and lest we forget, she also has a lot of honorary doctorate degrees from various universities across the globe.
Even her most ardent critics will agree, with such a CV, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala objectively stands a good chance of making any list of possible candidates for finance and economic chiefs anywhere in the world. Luckily or unluckily, courtesy of her nationality and the method of selection used, she has now become minister (again) in Nigeria.
It is very important to mind the gap when moving from objective or general to specific for a lot can vary in-between. In efficient and unadulterated recruitments and elections, it is the suitability of a candidate for a specific context that ultimately determines why he or she is selected above and in place of other equally eligible candidates more or less qualified. All cardinals are eligible to the throne of Saint Peter but only the one perceived as most suitable for the specific historical context is elected to be pope. The substantial proof of such suitability, naturally unfolds during his activities in office.
Since her second coming into office as minister of Finance and coordinator National Economic Management Team, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has, through her deeds and utterances, made the issue of the sovereign national wealth her major battle. She announced victory and reiterated her case for the controversial fund last week, during the just concluded Rivers State Investors Forum. In evaluating the performance and suitability of the honourable minister and coordinator, some of the fundamental elements to include in the matrix are Law, Economics, Politics, History, and, of course, a good understanding of her countryâ€™s reality.
When one places her resolve for the sovereign wealth fund within such matrix, one cannot but ask if Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is really suitable to be the minister of Finance and coordinator National Economic Management Team in todayâ€™s Nigeria.
In case she and those like her are not aware, Nigeria today is an oil rich country, but it is also a country wherein majority of the citizens survive on less than three US dollars a day and where most parts of the land is in dire need of basic services such as access to portable water, stable electricity, good roads, efficient healthcare and functional schools worthy of such description.
To this long list, we must add that state governors and local chairmen across the country, who by nature are closer to the citizens, all lament that they have no money to carry out urgently needed projects in their constituencies.
To say Nigeria cannot afford to save yet is an understatement. Why should a poor man that can barely afford to feed himself or pay his rent be asked to save? What is he saving for, his funeral?
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala gave those criticising her fund what will appear to be a strong reason last week, when she explained that â€œthe Sovereign Wealth Fund is not just an instrument for saving for the next generation, but it is also an instrument to protect us from price volatility and it helps us to save our economy from crisis.â€
No, Honourable Minister, your political economy is wrong. Diversification, not savings, will protect us from price volatility and help us to save our economy from crisis, what we need is to strengthen other sectors of our economy such as agriculture and services, promote manufacturing, build capacities and create jobs. To do all these, we need to spend and not save.
While we are at it, let us look into some financials. At what rate are we saving and at what rate are we borrowing? What is the expected return on the money we save and how much do lenders from the World Bank, investment bankers and our own high street bankers want us to pay them when we go to borrow for our hospitals, roads, schools and water projects? Check what Eurobonds will cost and what private partners want when they decide work in partnership with our public bodies to provide public utilities.
Another aspect Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and her team seem to be neglecting is the history of this whole issue in Nigeria. It is not the first time the concept of putting aside some money has come up, the last time, it was called excess crude account and we all know what happened to that account.
To prove she is really suitable for the job of managing our finances and that her approach built on the creation of the Sovereign Wealth Fund is the most appropriate for us, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala needs to answer a lot of questions and prove to us that she understands Nigeria and that she is really in touch with Nigerians. She has not done that till date and we wonder if she is suitable for this job.
â€¢Anthony Kila writes from London, UK