Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: 6 talking points from Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s Black Book

Okonjo

A book about how fighting corruption in Nigeria is dangerous should be hardly remarkable. It is the equivalent of a reminder that all triangles have three sides, or that night follows day.

But with the exception of her presidents and vice presidents, Dr Ngozi Oknojo-Iweala is Nigeria’s most globally recognised public servant since 1999, which would make her perspective on the subject, if not remarkable, at least uniquely insightful.

 Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous, published in April, is her front row account of the murky waters and dark alleys of public service in Nigeria. A synopsis of her Jonathan years as Minister of Finance, it projects a strong defense of the intentions of her bosses (including Olusegun Obasanjo), makes no apologies to characters that sought to define her job as unimportant, and casts gloom to the idea that stopping crime would be worth it if family is to be potentially sacrificed.

Jonathan: Good Listening, Poor Communication

It is some honour to get a personal call from your country’s leader offering the biggest portfolio on the cabinet, but it is even a greater one to have him value your every opinion. With his self-deprecating acknowledgement of “not knowing economics”, President Jonathan, it appears, withheld no shred of trust in the woman he made “coordinating minister of the economy”, and, by her account, it was an arrangement that saved the country from scammers from all parts of the world. She was not uncertain in evaluating Jonathan’s communication in crises though: “we never got the balance right”.

Who owns the budgetary process?

It has been more than 25 weeks since President Muhammadu Buhari presented the 2018 budget to the National Assembly but the problems that make early passage of budgets in Nigeria impossible are not new. The budget passing season is the ‘transfer window’ for corruption and anyone interested in fighting the menace will have to figure out how to work out the delineation of responsibilities in the process. Okonjo-Iweala’s description of the dealing that has to be made – the “considerable effort needed to persuade legislators” – is an account of men and women generally not interested in fighting for the welfare of the public but for their pockets. How do the laws and guidelines on the National Assembly’s limits to altering projects and costs in the budget, the key policy document of every administration, become clearer?

Between Aregbesola and Sowore

Public service at the top level in Nigeria is very much a man’s field. As Honourable Muhammed Kazaure showed in March, some men really wish it remains for men only for as long as life exists on earth. It’s a guide to prying into a scene Okonjo-Iweala describes involving the present Osun governor, Rauf Aregbesola as with other encounters with control-phobic men during her time in Abuja. And she had peculiar words for Sahara Reporters publisher and now presidential aspirant, Omoyele Sowore, which could require a conversation on the standards of interface between the media and political office holders. Beyond Sowore, Iweala also wants us to talk about disaffected job applicants for government jobs who write op-ed pieces to whip up ethnic tenting.

“Not all female ministers…”

Mrs Okonjo-Iweala served in the administration with the highest ever number of female cabinet members in Nigerian history, but she may not have been entirely approving of her colleagues in terms of their performance of their duties. Discussing the role played by “antifeminists” who detested that a woman like her had significant influence in the Jonathan era, the former Minister noted that “unfortunately, not all female ministers exercised their power well or wisely”. She would not mention any of her female ministerial colleagues by name throughout the book, curiously expressing in one narration of the less-than-cooperative relationship between her staff and the Ministry of Petroleum Resources.

Let’s Talk About Debts

As may be expected of an economist, the former Minister sought to back her story up with data, leaving the reader with a number of appendices on facts and figures from her time. The figures on the domestic and foreign debts being borne by more than two-thirds of states are staggering; one state increased its domestic load by more than 7000% between 2013 and 2015. Will state governors who have increased their state’s debt burdens to gargantuan levels just sign off without query in 2019?

Fighting Corruption is Dangerous

There is no way to read Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s book without recognising it as a testimony, a thanksgiving essay for her mother, Professor Kamene Okonjo. Showing up to the FEC meeting in the aftermath of her mother’s abduction was defiance but it would have counted for nothing had the octogenarian contemporary of Grace Alele Williams not been returned alive. Of the fight against corruption, the former Minister – who also seems to have said her goodbyes to Nigeria – says “it requires God’s protection”.

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