PROFILE: #CalamityKemi | Is Kemi Adeosun the worst finance minister since 1999?

by Wilfred Okiche

Sarah Paulson, the American character actress, got a well overdue career boost when she played real life person Marcia Clark in the 2016 FX anthology series, American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson.

Paulson won an Emmy for her spot on and sympathetic portrayal of prosecutor Marcia Clark, who was vilified and cast aside as an incompetent bimbo for failing to recognise the landmark 1994 OJ Simpson case for what it really was- a referendum on race relations.

In the eyes of the press and the culture, Clark took the fall for OJ’s eventual acquittal, never mind that forces beyond her were generally at play. It took twenty years and a hit television series for Marcia Clark to finally retrieve her respect and dignity from America.

It is 2016 and Nigerian Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, stands at an interesting place in the eyes of the nation. Widely regarded in some quarters as an ineffective presence at best, and at worst, incompetent and totally without scruples, Adeosun finds herself facing a similar bum rap. One that while not being of her own creation, has been prolonged and allowed to fester by her series of actions and inactions.

Finance Ministers the world over are not supposed to be utterly lovable people. The nature of the job and the toxic political environment demands that whoever holds the title confronts conflicting interests head-on and is expected to make tough choices. If the job is done successfully, the most any person can hope to get is grudging respect. Immediate past Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala admitted as much on Al-Jazeera’s social media-oriented program, The Stream, shortly after she left office.

Hear her: “No one likes a Finance Minister because it is the business of saying no. It is very difficult and challenging.’’

Kemi Adeosun, barely a full year into her stint as manager of the nation’s finances has discovered that it is indeed hard out there for a girl. Her appointment in November 2015, almost an anti-climax, came under heavy scrutiny as it followed months of hand-wringing and dilly-dallying by President Buhari. Taking his sweet time to name his ministers, Buhari in his self-appointed role as general overseer and sole administrator of the national purse had done considerable damage to an economy that was already compromised long before he assumed office.

Not at all minding that things were looking dire and all the signs were pointing to a recession sooner rather than later, Buhari for reasons best known to him, failed to assemble an economic team for the first five months of his administration and took some questionable fiscal policy decisions like bailing out cash-strapped States largely on his own.

Thus, it was with low expectations that Kemi Adeosun resumed at the Ministry of Finance. Her appearance at the Senate during the ministerial screening process was big on talk but short on specifics. It was no fault of hers, as ministerial appointees were screened blindly without portfolios attached because Senators clung to the resumes and past antecedents of the nominees.

Kemi Adeosun, a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Nigeria and England, who has had experience working in both countries (in the public and private sectors) was considered by pundits and commentators as a safe but unexciting bet by a President not versed in economic matters.

The Economist labelled Adeosun “poorly qualified for the job’” but she did get some support from her peers. While endorsing Adeosun’s appointment as Finance Minister, Bismarck Rewane, a prominent economist and Chief Executive Officer of Financial Derivatives Co. told Bloomberg News, “Adeosun has a strong background. She has a lot of energy and is high on integrity. She’s pro-reform and is a realist.”

Akin Oyebode, a Professor of International Law and Jurisprudence was suitably unimpressed, going as far as telling Channels TV that Adeosun’s appointment was a joke. ‘’With due respect to Kemi Adeosun, I don’t think she has the gravitas to be the Tsar on the economy,’’ he thundered. His reasons admittedly were not based on track record or antecedents, but were hinged on the very academic matter of her qualifications – “a first degree in Economics” – and alma mater – “not from Oxford or Cambridge.”

Big shoes to fill

Professor Oyebode may have been voicing the fears of a number of enlightened Nigerians but what he wasn’t saying was that in terms of economic affairs, Nigerians had been accustomed to the all-encompassing presence of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala(NOI), the world renowned economist and financial expert who preceded Adeosun as finance minister and was also the Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy during the Jonathan years.

Before resuming her second stint as Finance Minister, Okonjo-Iweala, who boasts a Curriculum Vitae intimidating enough to make lesser mortals shrink, had worked in the World Bank as Managing Director and served in the International Monetary and Finance Committee of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Armed with a doctorate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Okonjo-Iweala has perhaps been single-handedly responsible for all of the goodwill Nigeria enjoyed from the rest of the world during the administration of Goodluck Jonathan.

But Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala does have her failings and Kemi Adeosun has been unafraid to point them out. While responding to a particularly vexing query from Channels TV’s Maupe Ogun this month on the need for government to engage a Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy, Kemi Adeosun dismissed the suggestion ever so subtly. ‘”If there was co-ordination (by the previous government), the cash calls arrears of about 7 billion dollars would not arise, they weren’t even documented,’’ she said.

Kemi Adeosun with her Post Graduate Diploma from the University of London, B.Sc in Economics from the University of East London, dangling earrings and prominent English accent, is certainly no push over, but she still pales considerably when compared with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Adeosun commenced her career as an Accounting assistant at British Telecom Company, London in 1989. She moved to Goodman Jones, London, where she worked as a Senior Audit Officer. In 1994, Adeosun became Manager of Internal Audit at London Underground Limited, London and Prism Consulting. She joined Price Waterhouse Coopers, London as Senior Manager in 2000.

In 2002, citing family reasons, Adeosun moved back to Nigeria where she turned down an option of joining PWC’s Nigeria office. She joined Denham Management as a Financial Controller and following a merger of the company with Chapel Hill, Adeosun was named Managing Director of Chapel Hill Denham Management in 2010. She left the company the same year under controversial circumstances, some have added. She says she wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Adeosun served as Managing Director, Quo Vadis Partnership briefly, and privately organised personal Finance trainings for women.

Wale Edun, a former Commissioner for Finance in Lagos state and mentor to Adeosun recommended her to then newly elected Governor Ibikunle Amosun of Ogun state. Adeosun claims she had no political inclinations. She told Punch newspapers, “He mentioned a job on Finance but I replied that I wasn’t interested in any political appointment. He insisted and I went. I just wanted to get there, see the Governor, thank him for considering me and reject the offer. But by the time I heard him talk about his plans for the state and his zeal (he is also an Accountant), I changed my mind and took up the job.”

To be the first

This was 2011 and Kemi Adeosun entered history books when she was sworn in as the first female Finance Commissioner in Ogun State. But there was little time to celebrate. According to Adeosun, the state’s finances were a mess. The debts were piling up and the citizens saw no reason to pay taxes. She began the arduous task of cleaning up the state, while at the same time investing confidence in the system.

Adeosun adopted the Treasury Single Account (TSA) system that directed all state revenue to a central collection point, eliminating about 50 bank accounts the state was reportedly operating with. By the time she was done, Ogun State’s Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) had climbed from less than a billion Naira to a record high of 6 billion Naira. She also drove initiatives like the Home Owners Charter, a programme that helped indigenes of the state become home owners by getting their title documents with minimal stress through a friendly rebate.

She recalls attending Federal Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) meetings in Abuja where she was sometimes assumed to be representing the Commissioner. Her simple response was always, “I am the Commissioner.”

Governor Amosun had submitted Adeosun’s name to President Buhari as Minister designate for Ogun state but while the President tarried, Amosun also pencilled down Kemi Adeosun to return for a second term as Finance Commissioner.

But this did not stop the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) from petitioning President Buhari, advising against Adeosun’s nomination, citing “her many scandals premising on financial mismanagement, questionable and self-beneficial transactions of government businesses, wastefulness, acquisition of questionable wealth, ineptness and graft.”

In an interesting twist, insiders reveal that Wale Edun, also from Ogun state, the same person who brokered Adeosun’s initial meet with Governor Amosun was the competing party to Adeosun’s ministerial hopes. He was nominated by APC chieftain Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

After his ministerial chances fell through, Edun was nominated to the Board of Trustees of the Trust Fund for the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), the body responsible for implementing the United Nations Environmental Report (UNEP) Report on Ogoniland. The Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun also serves on this board.

The Buhari effect

Kemi Adeosun may owe her present political clout to President Muhammadu Buhari, but he is also the one person responsible for the shortage of confidence expressed in her management capabilities, both by investors and Nigerians alike. As first demonstrated in his prior engagement as Head of State in 1983, Buhari remains an economic neonate. His thinking has hardly evolved to reflect the times and he still clings to outdated policies like capital controls and import restriction mechanisms.

This is where Adeosun has dropped the ball. President Buhari is notoriously stubborn and difficult to nudge once his mind is made up, and so needs strong personalities in key areas who are able to hold their ground while making a convincing argument. Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of State for Petroleum is one such person. He stood his ground and was ultimately (along with market realities) able to convince Buhari to abandon the fuel subsidy regime that was eating away at reserves and encouraging black market operations, thereby making petroleum products freely available, albeit at increased prices.

Adeosun, has alongside Godwin Emefiele of the Central Bank of Nigeria been criticized for encouraging Buhari’s excesses and letting him take the lead on major fiscal and monetary policy pronouncements, even when he is quite ignorant of the ultimate implications of his actions.

For a long time, Buhari held on to his conviction that devaluing the Naira was the same as killing it and the CBN indulged him, holding out for what seemed like forever, while prices of goods and services doubled and foreign reserves were deployed to “defend” the Naira, before finally deciding earlier in the year that a floatation would work better.

At her Senate confirmation hearing, Adeosun stated, “there are pros and cons around devaluation. Adjusting the foreign exchange rate on its own in isolation will not solve our problems.” She has supported CBN’s foreign exchange restrictions in the past but has broken ranks with the bank recently, calling for a step down of interest rates.

Buhari’s lethargic pace and slow approach to getting things done has no doubt, helped tip the economy into recession. The 2016 budget took forever to be presented to the National Assembly on account of the delay in appointing Ministers and the entire process was ridiculed in a shameful padding accusation back and forth between members of the Executive and Legislature. This failure to recognise urgency has also rubbed off on Ministers like Kemi Adeosun who have come to be overly cautious about making major pronouncements.

The Vice-President as head of the economic management team is the de facto Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy but he hasn’t taken to this task so well either. He makes pronouncements which Adeosun’s ministry is likely to counter at some point, and then President Buhari says a different thing and suddenly everyone has to capitulate.

Confusion everywhere.

When accused of taking far too much time than is required to make economic decisions, Mrs Adeosun defended herself. She told Channels TV, “when people are feeling pain they want someone or somewhere to lay the blame to but I think the issue is not about timing, the issue is about strategy. If you start early with the wrong strategy you will get the wrong results.”

#CalamityKemi

Adeosun has not always had the right strategies either. She (and her economic management team) tends to jump from one big pronouncement to the other without necessarily thinking any through. In the process, she mixes up figures and dishes out data that is suspect.

As part of the EMT, Adeosun has defended the sale of some national assets as a way of reducing government borrowing and stimulating the stagnated economy. Even though this move received support from prominent fellows like the Senate President Bukola Saraki and Aliko Dangote, Nigerians have reacted strongly with the Nigerian Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress, rejecting it totally.

The Presidency floated the idea of an emergency economic stabilisation bill that would legitimise presidential fiat in taking certain decisions that would ultimately fast track and stimulate the economy. Adeosun has denied seeing such a bill but supports the rationale behind it. According to her, “I’m not privy to the bill but I’m privy to the thinking behind it…There are a number of bottlenecks that we have already identified that we think giving where we are, may be worth looking at how we unlock them.”

In this era of social media engagement and increased scrutiny, government officials do not necessarily have the luxury of making decisions far removed from the populace. Almost every move Adeosun’s ministry has considered has come under heavy scrutiny and the debates sparked have forced her team to come forward with more detailed explanations.

A throwaway line – “Recession is just a word”- from a speech she delivered at a town hall meeting acquired a life of its own and was heavily condemned after it went viral, and she has been vilified for normally forgivable matters like errors in simple addition. Adeosun’s flip flopping on matters she should speak about with more certainty have not exactly helped.

Ready for the big leagues?

But all of this is not to imply that Kemi Adeosun isn’t doing her job to the best of her abilities. She has assumed office at a very trying time in the nation’s development process and anyone, no matter their skill or qualifications, would have challenges steadying this particular ship. Adeosun has proved to be reform minded and her tentative attempts have naturally, received forceful push back.

Adeosun has been bullish about stimulating the economy by redirecting expenditure from recurrent to capital to create jobs. The 2016 budget has a 30% commitment to capital expenditure, a figure which while not ideal, is a huge improvement from budgets of the past. She has remained committed to cleaning up government’s payroll by following through with processes like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s much-lauded Government Integrated Financial Management and Information System (GIFMIS). Under her watch, our national wages and salary burden has shrunk from 1.65 billion to 1.59 billion Naira and is still shrinking.

In pushing her capital expenditure spending agenda, Adeosun has continually stressed the need for both government and private sector to build infrastructure like their lives depended on it. Indeed, the country’s economy may well depend on the availability of decent infrastructure like roads, rail and power. To this end, Adeosun has approved release of about 109 billion Naira to the ministry of Power, Works and Housing to continue stalled projects nationwide.

There remains some issues with transparency, though, as details of the breakdown of these monies have not been made available and the Ministry of Finance has not responded to BudgIT’s Freedom of Information request on the breakdown of the 720.5 billion Naira claimed to have been released to finance capital projects from the 2016 budget.

Sarah Paulson while accepting her Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series Emmy finally apologised to Marcia Clark on behalf of America, ending what had been 22 years of reputational damage for the former prosecutor. Kemi Adeosun’s reputation may have taken a hit but she still has a long way to go to prove herself to not just her boss, but to Nigerians and the world at large. And it doesn’t get any easier. Her job remains an endlessly difficult one and while Nigerians struggle with their impressions of her, any apology is still a long way off.

It is a thankless job she has been saddled with, and the road ahead is rough, winding and crooked but if Adeosun does it half right and has good fortune on her side, it may yet lead to a most amazing view.

Here’s wishing her all the best.

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