Fighting Corruption is Dangerous is an interesting retelling of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s legacy



173 pages

MIT Press

According to Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the global average tenure for a finance minister is two years. In Nigeria, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala served in this capacity for seven, three of them (2003-2006) during the Olusegun Obasanjo second term administration, and four under the leadership of Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (2011-2015). She remains Nigeria’s longest serving finance minister and is the first woman to hold that position.

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Following her first stint in government, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who also served as Managing Director of the World Bank overseeing South Asia, Central Asia, Europe and Africa, published Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria, a chronicle of her experience managing the financial resources of Africa’s largest economy. Fighting Corruption is Dangerous is a companion piece to that first book, this time zeroing in on the significant events and key takeaways from her second merry go round.

Even when Okonjo-Iweala’s first stint as finance minister ended in turbulence- she resigned shortly after she was moved to the foreign ministry and stripped of her leadership of the Economic Management Team, she left office in high regard and the structural and macroeconomic reforms which she spearheaded had led to a successful write down of about $30billion debt which Nigeria owed the Paris Club of creditors.

She returned in 2011 to heightened expectations plus an additional responsibility as the Coordinating Minister of the Economy. But after four years, Nigerians, disillusioned with the prevailing system, spoke with their votes and booted the Jonathan administration out of office amidst multiple corruption scandals, a humanitarian crisis in the North-East and an economy hovering on the brink.

Fighting Corruption is Dangerous is Okonjo-Iweala’s answer to those who have dismissed her second coming as largely ineffectual. If the title of the book sounds just a tad self-congratulatory, it is only because sometimes setting the record straight and rolling out a list of one’s achievement aren’t mutually exclusive.

Okonjo-Iweala reveals instances where her resolve and smart decision making saved the country millions of dollars. One of these occurred when some quick thinking by President Jonathan led to her invitation to assess a deal put forward by an Abu Dhabi group to refurbish the naval dockyard to the tune of $2billion sourced from a loan that would be guaranteed by the Nigerian government. The same group eventually sold the repackaged deal to the Mozambique government, saddling the country with $850 million in bad debt.

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An evening with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

In May this year, Roving Heights, a Lagos based bookstore, put together the first national book reading of Fighting Corruption is Dangerous, packaged as a meet and greet with the author. In a room packed full of mostly young persons, at the posh Radisson Blu Anchorage hotel in Victoria Island, Okonjo-Iweala who presently chairs the board of Gavi, the vaccine alliance and sits on the board of Twitter, read passages from Fighting Corruption is Dangerous and sat for a revealing question and answer session.

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking it was a state of the nation intervention as Okonjo-Iweala took on questions that touched on front page issues. She gave her thoughts on matters like budget padding, fuel subsidies, immigration and sexual harassment in the work place before intervening with some practical solutions of her own. At some point, the mood got quite emotional as Ms Okonjo-Iweala broke down in tears, ‘’Can I tell you something? the quality of questions you are asking, they are almost making me cry’’ she managed in between sobs as her audience encouraged her with a polite wave of applause.

Softball questions followed thereafter.

Okonjo-Iweala responded to a query asking her to clarify if fuel subsidies are still in place by retorting sharply, ‘’You live in Nigeria, you tell me. How much do you pay for fuel?’’ and shared her own #MeToo experience of sexual harassment while gathering data for her undergraduate thesis.

She explained her reluctance in the book, to name and shame a Jonathan era top presidential aide who prevented her from accessing the VIP gate of the presidential villa while accompanied by International Monetary Fund (IMF) president, Christine Lagarde, on a working visit to Nigeria. ‘’ It is a matter that the person is not in a place where they can defend themselves, let us leave it at that.’’ She pleaded.

Not all of her answers were satisfactory.

On the issue of immigration, Okonjo-Iweala’s response to a young man who shared his plans for moving to Canada permanently was an emotional plea that hinted of a disconnect from the reality of young Nigerians.

The former minister who started her career as a development economist in the World Bank, advised young Nigerians to stay back and build their country, claiming to be distressed at the images of immigrants stuck on boats, waiting to be let in to a new country. As if any young person present in that Victoria Island space would honestly consider the high seas as a route of migration to Europe.

She accepted she had no ‘’quick answers’’ to all the questions and in times of insufficiency, clung to the safety of empty platitudes like ‘’We need to be the change we want,’’ and ‘’You don’t have to change the country, you just have to be true to yourself.’’

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‘’Telling my story is dangerous’’

Fighting Corruption is Dangerous begins with the narration of the 2012 kidnap of Kamene Okonjo, the octogenarian retired professor mother of doctor Okonjo-Iweala, a complication that was introduced to get the former finance minister to resign her appointment.

The episode clearly shook her but Okonjo-Iweala resolved to stay on to get the job done. Staying on involved battling fraudulent oil marketers, pension scammers and ghost employees milking the state dry. She spent plenty of her time taking on greedy legislators looking to profit, short-sighted governors unwilling to save for the future and putting in place systems to at least curb corrupt practices within government. Some of these efforts were successful, some not so much, and Okonjo-Iweala documents as much in this slim volume.

She puts down political will as a necessary factor for fighting corruption but for the most part, refuses to delve deep into the character of the two presidents she served under and how they both shaped their respective anti-corruption campaigns. Unsurprisingly she is sparing of Jonathan and glosses over his failures as a leader and as a human being. Obasanjo though gets some praise for keeping the annual budget process within the control of the presidency, an achievement that went south during the Jonathan years.

In one of Fighting Corruption…’s more perplexing turns, Okonjo-Iweala yields chunks of space to reproducing easily sourced articles that lampooned her during her stay in office.

‘’Telling my story is risky. But not telling it also is dangerous,’’ Okonjo-Iweala reflects somewhere in Fighting Corruption is Dangerous and as if to underscore this point, she ends the book with a passage that details a distressing search last year of her Abuja home by armed police men. The policemen, under cover of a whistle blower policy enacted by the Buhari administration claimed to be searching for foreign currency. They left, disappointed after finding nothing significant.

The Okonjo-Iweala family learnt from this episode, as many Nigerians already know, that without strong institutions and the safety net of the rule of law, even the noble charge of fighting corruption could easily be weaponized. Fighting corruption may be important, but building strong institutions are even more vital.

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