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Profile: Why we should be excited about Zainab Ahmed (and why we shouldn’t be)

Zainab Ahmed

Following the resignation of Kemi Adeosun, former Minister of Finance over allegations of a forged document exempting her from the compulsory National Youth Service Commission (NYSC), President Muhammadu Buhari named Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, the former junior minister for Budget and National Planning to supervise the finance ministry.

Days after this announcement, the President’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, confirmed the exact nature of Ms Ahmed’s position to state house correspondents. He stressed, “Don’t forget it is also a legal thing, if a minister is going to be appointed there are procedures that is why it is a deployment.” Usman has since relinquished her former portfolio in the Budget and National Planning ministry and has assumed her new responsibilities.

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Upon resumption at the finance ministry, officials welcomed her with solidarity songs and chants of aluta but Nigerians were more muted. The position is considered a temporary one and Ahmed is likely to hold office only for a couple of months until the 2019 elections.

Speaking with staff of the finance ministry on her first day in office, Ahmed highlighted the acute problems facing her ministry, and the need to ensure stability. Ahmed assumes office at a time when the economy is only just recovering from a crippling recession. A career civil servant, her appointment is hardly the stuff to set the markets on fire but there seems to be a quiet sigh of relief that President Buhari at least managed to not get it wrong.

Going by his antecedents, it could have been a whole lot worse. Buhari is after all the president who tarried six months before announcing his cabinet and then ended up selecting incompetent duds like Solomon Dalung and Adamu Adamu. Buhari also managed to appoint fellows like Kemi Adeosun and Abdur-Raheem Adebayo Shittu who both copped to having skipped NYSC.

Like Kemi Adeosun before her, Ahmed studying accounting. A first degree obtained from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria suggests some basic knowledge in public finance. Unlike Adeosun however who had significant private sector experience, Ahmed’s work has largely been in the public sector.

There are fears about this lack of real time private sector experience and about the quality of her engagement with the leading global financial institutions. But supporters who have welcomed her appointment point to her stint as Minister of State for Budget and National Planning as well as her five year tenure as the Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. In both capacities, Ahmed chalked up experience working with multilateral and development institutions.

Blue blood

Born 16, June 1960, to a prominent Kaduna state family headed by Mallam Yahaya Hamza, a retired permanent secretary in the federal ministry of education and former Secretary to the Kaduna state government, Ahmed credits her father with instilling in the family, the importance of a proper education. At her Senate confirmation hearing in 2015, she made note of her father’s legacy, ‘’It is as a result of the kind of upbringing that he has given us that I am standing here today.’’

Ahmed attended Queen Amina College, Kaduna, graduating in 1977. She had her ‘A’ Level studies at the School of Basic Studies, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1979 before obtaining a BSc Accounting degree in 1981.

NYSC primary assignment was at Egunjobi, Suleiman & Co. Kaduna, a Chartered Accountants firm in Kaduna and her working career started as a finance officer in the Kaduna state ministry of finance. After three years, Ahmed left the state ministry for the Nigeria External Telecommunications Limited which later transformed into NITEL. She spent eighteen years and held various positions in NITEL before reaching the rank of deputy general manager in charge of investments and treasury.

Speaking on the demise of NITEL at her Senate confirmation hearing, Ahmed observed solemnly, ‘’I am very sad at the state in which NITEL has become today. There was a lot of things that were not done by NITEL including several botched privatization processes, some management agreements that helped to bring the company down.’’

Ahmed moved her services to the Nigeria Mobile Telecommunications (MTEL) as General Manager Finance in September,2005 and later became Chief Finance Officer of MTEL. From MTEL, Ahmed was appointed Managing Director of the Kaduna Investment Company in March, 2009 to help Kaduna State define, plan and implement an accelerated industrial development program.

She was active in this position when she was named to join the National Stakeholders Working Group on the Board of NEITI, the national wing of the global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), set up to institutionalize accountability mechanisms and processes in the extractive sector. Ahmed transitioned into the inaugural Executive Secretary of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) and worked in this capacity up until she was appointed and posted to the Ministry of Budget and National Planning.

Madam NEITI

As a young student Zainab’s career ambition was to become Accountant General of her state. Fate led her in different directions. Armed with a Masters degree in Business Administration obtained from the Ogun State University, Ago-Iwoye, Ahmed led NEITI’s expansion from the oil and gas sector to include solid minerals.

Taking charge of NEITI was not without its challenges. NEITI was at the time, staring at a threat of possible suspension from the global EITI for failure to meet basic validation requirements. Ahmed and her team were able to correct course, addressing outstanding requirements and setting Nigeria on the path to EITI Compliant Status. This was eventually achieved in March, 2011. Ahmed’s NEITI was able to produce a comprehensive strategy to reposition the agency to perform its national responsibilities more effectively. The results began to show. NEITI was declared the best implementing country at the 6th Global Conference of the EITI held in Sydney, Australia in 2013.

Audit reports once sporadic and irregular became more current and comprehensive as the agency deepened relationships with stakeholders. At her Senate confirmation hearing, Ahmed played up her experiences and achievements as boss of NEITI and was able to successfully parry the admittedly softball questions that were put to her.

Team player

When President Buhari made public his list of ministers in 2015, Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed was the sole nominee from Kaduna state. Because of his perceived closeness with President Buhari, it was widely assumed that Governor Nasir El Rufai had nominated Ahmed, his half sister to represent Kaduna state. Ahmed’s father, Hamza had adopted a young El Rufai following the death of his own biological father.

At a town hall meeting in Kaduna, El-Rufai denied nominating Ahmed to Buhari’s cabinet giving full credit to President Buhari. Ahmed worked under the supervision of Udoma Udo Udoma, a former Senator. As one of the few women in Buhari’s cabinet, Ahmed quietly carved a niche for herself as one of the most dependable players. This isn’t high praise as Buhari’s team isn’t exactly the most inspiring or dynamic lineup to be assembled. Still Ahmed made the effort to be seen and heard.

The Budget and National Planning ministry was dogged by scandal as allegations of padding trailed the budgeting process leading to acrimony between both executive and legislative branches. Ahmed and her principal stayed largely above the fray but the damage was sustained. The budget has been delayed every year the Buhari administration has been in office.

Ahmed has been somewhat mediocre in approach, choosing to see only the bright side and pointing to low hanging fruits like government’s ability to pay salaries, pensions and arrears as opposed to glaring shortfalls in capital and recurrent expenditure. While at the Budget and National Planning ministry, Ahmed worked on the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP), a medium-term plan designed to move the economy from recession while facilitating growth. Nigeria was able to move up by 24 points from 169th position in the 2017 ranking to 145th in the World Bank’s 2018 report, recording appreciable improvements areas like payment of taxes and registering property but it remains to be seen whether the ERGP has made any significant effect. Bottlenecks still constrain potent economic growth especially in areas like manufacturing and power.

As Minister of State for Budget and National Planning, Ahmed’s responsibilities included budget implementation, monitoring and evaluation, donor coordination as well as managing the National Social Investment Program (NSIP). The NSIP which consists of the Conditional Cash Transfer, National Home Grown School Feeding, Job Creation (N-power); and Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programs has been the four-pronged cornerstone of the Buhari administration’s social welfare intervention for the less privileged. NSIP hasn’t been quite the success the government envisaged and roll out of the various programs have been plagued by logistic nightmares. But beneficiaries have spoken of the usefulness.

As the government lead on donor coordination, Ahmed is also Chair of the inter-ministerial task team, leading coordination of the humanitarian response of the North East Crises in Nigeria. The objective of this team is to provide assistance to Internally Displaced Person (IDPs).

In an interview with Daily Trust shortly before her redeployment, Ahmed gave an account of her work in this capacity. Hear her, ‘’This ministry started coordinating the Northeast Intervention Humanitarian Response Plan in 2016. In 2016 we did a humanitarian response plan, we did one in 2017 and we did another in 2018. So in 2017 humanitarian response plan was $1.05 billion and we were able to realize 70 per cent of that. In 2018 it was also $1 billion, the current one that is being implemented. So far as at June what has been realised is about $500 million, about 50 per cent.’’

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Cause for concern?

Ahmed’s supervisory function in the finance ministry is only temporary until such a time that a substantive minister can be appointed. Because of this, she is expected not to reinvent the wheel, but to provide calm steady guidance in the interim. Ahmed has been quick to make the right noises in matters such as boosting national income sources, “We have very serious revenue challenges and it is up to us to make sure we shore up the revenue base of the country,’’ and protecting depositor confidence in the banking sector, ‘’We cannot just be bailing out banks and leaving perpetrators of the failure of these banks to just go scot-free. Even though you intervene by protecting depositors, but your intervention is limited. You’re not able to pay back all that the depositors have. We must show some examples and this (Skye) is a good one for us to start with.”

Her finance ministry received approval from the federal government has approved the sum of N22.68bn for the payment of retirement benefits to former staff of the liquidated Nigerian Airways Ltd. This accounts for about 50% of the entitlements due to the pensioners about fifteen years after the airline went belly up.

But there has also been cause for concern.

On her maiden official visit to the Nigeria Customs Service headquarters, the supervisory minister claimed that Nigeria’s debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio is doing fine at a recommended single digit of below 3%. The figure which indicates a country’s ability to pay back its debts, compares what a country owes with what it produces. Estimates from the Debt Management Office (DMO) had earlier pegged this ratio at 19.8. Economic experts insist the figure is much higher- closer to 30- after accounting for the true exchange rate at maturity plus sub national debt guaranteed by the federal government. In any case, the impression this gave was of a minister who isn’t quite sure of her numbers.

Because this is Nigeria, and because Buhari has been terrible with the optics, a lot of the criticism surrounding Ahmed’s appointment has not been about her qualifications- although there has been some of that. Many Nigerians have pointed at her provenance, querying the wisdom in Buhari picking yet another Northerner for another sensitive cabinet position. For these critics, Ahmed’s qualifications and near three-decade experience navigating public finances matter only so much. Her elevation is simply part of Buhari’s aggressive Northern agenda.

It is a fine balancing act that Zainab Ahmed is expected to perform the next couple of months.

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