18 February 2007

Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

One in four of the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa lives in Nigeria. Most of the 130 million population live on less than 1 euro (1$ or UK 60p) per day; one in five children does not reach the age of five. A country with the largest oil reserves in Africa, it ought to be the powerhouse of the continent, yet for decades it has languished, paralysed by military dictatorship in a slump of corruption; and until 2003, it rejoiced in the unenviable reputation as the most corrupt place on earth.

But something has changed… for the better; not an awful lot, but something, thanks to a single woman, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Now 51, she had worked at the World Bank in Washington DC, U.S.A. as an economist, where she lived for 20 years along with her husband and children. But in 2003, under a UN scheme designed to repatriate Africa's best brains to help resolve economic problems on the continent, she took charge of the finances of Nigeria.

Predictably, Mrs Ngozi saw corruption as her number one problem, with the worst sector undoubtedly the oil industry. She must have been daunted at the task before her, but something had to be done; talking in vague terms about making a change wasn't going to work.

For those who prefer vague terms, one suggests leaping to the next posting.

Mrs Ngozi’s first move was to get President Olusegun Obasanjo to sign up to an international scheme called the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative - under which oil and other companies agreed to publish what they pay.

Her next move was to ensure that the government opened their accounts for inspection by voters; she also audited the oil sector and put the results on the internet to reveal exactly how much the country produced and earned.

Then, in 2004, she gathered all of these detailed figures, breaking them down to what the federal government paid to each regional state and published this in Nigeria's national newspapers.

What did all of this achieve, gentle reader?

Transparency… information flowing freely, available to all members of society… accountability.

To illustrate: if the local hospital in village x receives four annual instalments of y$, it’s no longer possible to persuade villagers that the local hospital is so under-resourced by the central government that they cannot provide services.

That is why she has made so much information public. Availability of these figures became so popular that the President ordered they be published in a volume every year; column after column of figures, it must be the most boring best-seller every produced.

Mrs Ngozi also identified another key anti-corruption area - government contracts, costing almost five times as much as those in neighbouring countries. So she set up a unit known as Due Process to audit value for money on those contracts; it saved Nigeria the equivalent of $3bn in three years.

One of the other things she did was to remove the link between government spending and oil revenues. She based her 2004 budget on a very conservative oil price - $25 a barrel, when the price was actually more than $40- and she then announced to Nigerians how much she had saved each quarter.

Then there is the small print, as it were: she privatised loss-making steel plants and removed restrictions on telecoms, producing an increase from just 450,000 landlines to 16 million. She reduced import tariffs. She increased civil servants' pay but slashed their perks. She introduced reforms in banking, insurance, pensions, income tax and foreign exchange.

All of which doubled economic growth in Nigeria to an average of 7.6%, cut inflation from 23% to 11%, and achieved exchange-rate stability.

Not least of these achievements was the deal Mrs Ngozi secured to get $18bn of Nigeria's $30bn debt wiped away. In the past, the country was excluded from all debt deals because of its oil, but Mrs Ngozi argued with the rich world's finance ministers that while an oil-rich nation, Nigeria was not a rich nation, but rather a poor nation. In an unprecedented deal, she persuaded them to allow her invest billions that should have been used for service payments in health, education, power and water programmes.

All this has made our friend Mrs Ngozi powerful enemies. A smear campaign was launched to discredit her, implying that the fact she continued to be paid her old salary (by the UN, please note; that is how the transfer scheme operated) was improper, claiming that she bought herself a swanky house in Washington D.C. with ill-gotten gains she acquired as Finance Minister (in fact, she had owned that house while at the World Bank; details of her mortgage were publicly available) There were wilfully dishonest attacks on the internet, which included printing her home address, where her husband and children continued to live (she sees them for only a few days each month) Her family received death threats, gentle reader… from other Nigerians, after all that she had done.

Mrs Ngozi remained undeterred. So passionate was she about staying the course, last year she gave up the $240,000 salary and now earns $6,000 like other Nigerian ministers; two of her children, whose tuition fees she was paying, dropped out of college to make it possible.

And given her solid reputation, the smear allegations didn't take.

Across Africa many are again looking to Nigeria to become what, four decades ago, it was predicted to be - the giant economy of the continent. Of course, the danger is her reforms will be set aside when she leaves office, but now there is an appetite for openness, it will be hard to stop the information flow.

Transparency… information flowing freely, available to all members of society… accountability.

When people know what is happening, it’s harder to get away with injustice. The internet is a great ally in our fight; provided people make a choice to remain informed and do something about what they find out, free-flowing information enables individuals to make a real difference to help improve respect for human rights around the world.

How? Accountability… by shouting and screaming at the appropriate body of officials.

Individual people can make a difference, as Mrs Ngozi proves…

… and so can we, gentle reader.

So read the next posting.



Bjohn said...

Ms C ta muchly for yr apposite comments.
Some of us are working to promote better accountability in West Africa and take some heart from this splendid example - we would have waited forever for the press such as it is to advise us.
Keep up the good work (or anything else you would like to keep up)
J in Sierra Leone

Ms C Qrisp said...

Dearest J in Sierra Leone,
A Calling Card... why, you have no idea of the pleasure!

You have quite made my day with your kind words. Rest assured, I shall have no trouble keeping things up, and sincerely hope you do the same.

Gracious and sincere thanks for visiting my humble bloguette.

Kindest regards

Ms C Quisp