Buhari’s Government Confused, Adamant – Oby Ezekwesili
The Interview Magazine
Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, a former world back vice-president and also former Nigerian minister, is one Nigerian woman that evokes different but undeniably strong emotions in people just hearing her name, and for very obvious reasons too. She has fought for due process in public procurement, reforms in the solid minerals and education sectors in the past. At present, she is at the forefront of the Bring Back Our Girls movement, demanding accountability from the federal government on the status of the kidnapped Chibok girls. She recently opened her doors to The Interview and it was simply quintessential Oby…!
President Buhari has described the N7.3trn 2017 budget as the “budget to get the country out of recession.” What do you think he means by that?
Well, I don’t know what the president means by that. You have to ask the president what he means by that. But I would imagine that what a budget in a period of recession would seek to do is to enable the kind of investment by government that would help accelerate growth, which means that there would be a turnaround from decline to growth. What we face now as recession is a contraction of the economy and what you need is an expansion of the economy. The government is a dominant player in the economy and because the government is dominant in the economy whenever there is a shrinking of spending by the government, it can affect the rest of the economy. So, the 2017 budget as an instrument of helping end the recession would probably be taken in that respect. I think the critical issue becomes; what is the composition of that budget, both the revenue and expenditure sides to enable us decide.
Do budgets in and of themselves save from recession?
There are many things that are important. It’s not just the spending of government that will determine whether we can come out of recession. The policies of government are very critical for determining how quickly we can come out of recession. As a matter of fact, if the government focuses only on spending its way out of recession then it would miss the point. The point is that it is the quality of the government’s economic policies that put us in the turmoil in the first instance so it’s the quality of economic policy, accompanied by the quality of spending that will get us out.
There has been this clamour from many quarters for the government to spend more and more; does that really have any role to play?
Oh, that has an important role to play. Usually, we always say that the spending by government has to be counter-cyclical; counter-cyclical in the sense that when the rest of the economy is shrinking that’s when government should expand and do more because by doing more it helps to re-trigger the growth and the demand by the other segments of the economy. So, for example, the consumers are feeling poorer so demand is lower. The private sector is feeling the effect of the decline and demand and investment are shrinking. You see the way you look at the economy is from the government-consumer-business.
When the other two – consumer and business – are in a bad shape, that’s when, counter-cyclically you expect the government to spend more because it helps to keep the economy going. But it is not in throwing money to the problem; it is in the quality of spending, which is why I maintain that just saying ‘spend our way out of the recession’ is not a good enough statement. It’s about the priorities that we are spending on; it’s about the structure of the budget; it’s about the financing of the budget; it’s about the outcomes that we’re targeting from our spending.
Talking about the 2017 budget, if N2.24trn is going to be spent on capital expenditure, N2.98trn on recurrent and N1.8trn on personnel (the last two amounting to more than 50% of the budget), does that look like a budget that could get the country out of recession?
Well, you need to recognise that the current structure of the budget is such that previous budgets we had always seen a ratio of anything between 75-25 or 80-20 in terms of the recurrent cost, compared to the capital investment. So, that’s already a bad situation. The only thing you can do is to embark on a massive fiscal consolidation programme. The fiscal consolidation programme changes a lot of things, therefore, it requires a complete restructuring of government so that the cost of running government will radically reduce. When it reduces then it eases the space for you to be able to increase your capital investment. If you don’t change certain things in the structure and composition democracy you’re wasting your time thinking that you’re going to get any ratio that’s different from the existing pattern. All of those things that go towards your capital investment, if you don’t pay attention to them or do them as after thoughts because your budget, by the way, is first focused on servicing the needs of a bureaucracy that you have whether at the federal, state or local government level, then you are never going to do anything different. My fear is that structurally, we haven’t changed anything, structurally, the humongous bureaucracy remains intact so what’s different?
The second thing is that you’ve got a budget that has a financing gap of as much as N2trn as budget deficit. Now, that’s significant. Since 2003 we managed to pursue some important macro-economic type policies that ensured prudent fiscal activities. By doing that we have stayed at below two per cent fiscal deficit and that has been important as a way of ensuring that fiscal discipline guides the way that government spends. The effect of that is that it is supposed to constrain government from massively borrowing from the system in the kind of waythat it reduces what is available for the private sector because for as long as the government borrows from the same system then it reduces the resources that go as credit to the private sector. When you look at our budget and the fiscal deficit that is anticipated you can see that there’s plenty of hope for borrowings, although a huge portion of that borrowing is expected to be external. The fact is that .
The third is the rate of execution of even the capital investment. We have never really performed in that regard so that at the end of the day projects are in the books for so many years at different levels of execution. That creates even more costs for the projects and lack of delivery of the concrete objectives that were intended when they were conceived. So, that would mean that the infrastructure that we expect would be available in three years would not be available in six years and in some cases, in eight years. Therefore, what are we going to do differentlythat we execute the budget within a timeline different from our bad records of the past? These are all issues that are related to the budget.
What do you think accounts for the same pattern even after a change of the party at the centre?
Well, I think that in order for you to change the composition of the budget you need a massive restructuring of the economy and the government. The structural issues are very clear; we have a huge bureaucracy that you must tend to. For as long as you keep that bureaucracy intact nothing would ever work as it should.
So what stops the new government in power to make these happen?
Well, you will have to go and ask the new people in power. I don’t understand…you are asking the wrong person this question. Your question is not framed for me because there is a government in power and the kind of things they should do to change the structure of the budget…
OK, let’s rephrase that question: what do you think is stopping the new government from embarking on this restructuring?
I can’t tell. All I know is that it’s usually politically costly to restructure the composition of budgets when bureaucracy has become over-bloated and outsized. Therefore, the kind of fiscal consolidation package that the government would have to submit; it would have to negotiate their different stakeholders involved in order to just reduce the size of government significantly. That kind of a cost requires political capital and it takes a certain kind of understanding that if you postpone this, you are wasting your time.You are never going to get anything remarkably different from what you have in the past. Everything that was said about ‘we want to diversify the economy’ how is that going to happen? Diversifying the economy is not by making a statement; it’s by repositioning the various roles of government, the roles of business, defining those roles in the kind of ways that will enable each play their own particular roles in a different kind of way from the past, that way it would yield a different outcome. I think it Einstein that said that, “it’s a sign of insanity to repeat a pattern and expect a different outcome.” So,
But if we don’t see it in this time of ‘change’ do you then see it ever happening?
Oh well, it’s very clear that just because you express a desire doesn’t mean that you also are willing to invest what it takes to achieve your desire. Another group may not express the desire but get it done. So, we should never foreclose the fact that this is a possibility. We have no choice; ultimately the country has to confront this problem. There has to be a time when we realise that we are not going anywhere until we confront the challenge. The current structure of governance we have is very defeating of our ultimate purpose to be greater an economy than we currently are. . We continue to expand the bureaucracy on the basis of some single commodity that has variable fortunes; that we have absolutely no control over. In less than a month we lost 60 per cent of our revenue simply because the price of oil dropped, a major economic shock to the economy. Do you want to retain that kind of a structure? These are hard questions that ultimately require answers and in galvanising the society to face this reality it means that it has to be a conversation for all but it has to be led by political leaders and it’s their business to define the problem properly. The problem today is that a number of the states that we have in this country are not viable. For as long as we continue to bury our heads in the sand and think that we will just keep growing the scale of government and the spending of government and somehow, because we say we want to diversify the economy, it will happen, there won’t be much progress. This country requires about $20bn annually to invest if we are going to build up our infrastructure. Our infrastructural need is that much. We are you going to find the money if your budget is mostly directed towards running bureaucracy?
The budget is based on a benchmark of $42.5 per barrel, oil production estimate of 2.2m and exchange rate of 305/$. Do you think these are realistic parameters?
You know the parameter on the exchange rate is still very unfortunate because what the government is doing is that it’s refusing to align the prices in the economy. By pretending that the dollar is worth N305, it’s creating an arbitrage opportunity of as much as maybe N150 or N190, that’s lost revenue for government. It’s significantly so because what it means is that it’s selling very scarce dollars belonging to Nigerian people to some people that it considers priority groups at a cost lower than what the market is telling us. There are two issues there. One is,simply by approaching this matter of allocation of the foreign exchange in the manner that we’re doing. That’s huge because it sets off a lot of problems that we have seen in the last 18 months or thereabout of this administration. The fact is that the monetary policy, in fact the exchange rate policy became a policy that’s more administratively determined than market-driven.
The second thing about the exchange rate is that for those that you’re are selling the dollar at N305; what is your system for ensuring that their pricing of their production isconsistent with this subsidy of about N180 that you are giving to them? Now, N180 for every dollar you are selling is significant because it can reduce your need to borrow money. You can be the lender to yourself by just aligning your foreign exchange market properly and we have not done that and the gap is widening so much. Why should we have this exchange rate market situation today? It is harmful to the economy; it is distorting the economy in the allocation of production resources. It is making the distortionary effect of poor allocation a basis for rent seeking activities. Therefore, the shenanigans that existed in the petrol subsidy are transferred to shenanigans in the exchange market. We simply need to be consistent with what the CBN said it was going to do; float the naira.
For the parameter of the crude oil price, well, in the last six months we have seen oil prices sort of double from the lowest levels of $28 to as much as $52. But don’t bank on it because the pricing that we are seeing is coming out of negotiations on agreements on oil cuts. Any one of these countries can renege and as soon they renege it would affect the oil price. So you are safer to take a very prudent number. I would have been more comfortable with the government working with something in the region of $30-35 because $35gets them close to the average of the $52. Then it would moderate all your other numbers; you will not be disappointed.
What about the third parameter,pegging daily production at 2.2mpd?
It can only be because the government feels much more confident that it won’t have any disruptions in oil production in 2017. In which case, we should very much welcome that if it has been able to resolve all challenges whether technical or force major when there are disruptions in the Niger Delta. We can only wish ourselves well in that regard.
Was the poor implementation of the 2016 budget largely a function of falling oil prices and the problems in the Niger Delta – or something more fundamental?
I think the budget timeline was not practically good. When was the budget passed and when did the implementation begin? I think it lost as much as four months in commencement of implementation from the date of signing. It was delayed passage and delayed execution.The second point is thatwhether you want it or not there are procedures that are laid down to guide fiscal activities of government. So, public procurement procedures must be complied with and if you don’t have the capacity to be able to do this as efficiently as possible you will suffer delays. That also would have affected the implementation of the budget.
How can the mistakes of the 2016 budget (which was supposed to be zero-based and therefore more efficient) be avoided in 2017?
I think the government needs to be clear on the over N2.3trn budget deficit it has built into the budget. What in tangible numbers will the 2017 budget buy for us? How many kilometres of roads; how many trained teachers; how many classrooms; how many units of power will the budget procure for us?Those are the real measures of the budget it’s not the input, not the size and not even the output but the outcome. Secondly, to do something differently would be to give a quarterly report of budget performance for 2017. We need to be able to know how the budget is performing.They should also do media review of the budget and carry the public along in order to necessitate the kind of discussions and debates that are important concerning budgets made in democracies. considering that each year when the budget is presented the citizens are told that it’s the budget of this or that. This one is called the budget of recovery, well you need the citizens to be part of that recovery process.
The other thing is that the government needs to be very proactive in determining whether this significant outlay of borrowing does not derail its debt sustainability strategy. Even though there is a common refrain by government that our debt to GDP is lower than the average around the world, the fact is that for an economy like ours, the real indicator that matters is our debt to tax revenue and our debt to tax revenue is so high, very, very high. The last time I checked our debt to tax revenue was above 30 per cent.
What should be the threshold?
The threshold normally is 10 per cent in other countries but ours is considerably higher. Our debt to GDP is 17 per cent so it’s considered low and safe but when you consider our debt to tax,that’s much higher. Economists look at it from the perspective that your debt should not be so overwhelming that your capacity to generate revenue to handle that debt is affected. If it’s overwhelming, you are in crisis.The reason we should look at ours from the perspective of non-oil revenue is because the price of oil is not stable but if you look at your tax revenue and it’s growing, then it can carry the weight of borrowing. I think it’s very necessary to consider our debt strategy again. The more concessionary borrowing you can do, the better. Non-concessional borrowing cost more money while concessionary borrowing is more like grant because of the number of years and the low interest rate that you pay on it. Then, the quality of projects that you are borrowing for will determine the productivity of your borrowing. And when you look at the infrastructure plan of the government against which it says it’s making the nearly $30bnexternal loan request you have to ask for more details because there is no strong argument yet for how those set of projects can deliver the kind of infrastructure that we need to improve productivity in the economy.
But do you think the government needs the loan?
The government has not made a strong case. The only case that I know is that there is a case to be made for finding resources to invest in a massive build-up of our infrastructure. Infrastructure can add two per cent to our GDP growth so, it’s important we should fix it. However, we must be very good in determining the choices and priorities of the infrastructure that we’re going to borrow for because if we have the right selection of infrastructure in energy, roads and other kinds of infrastructure needs in the country, then what would happen is that the economic benefit of their investments would show up in higher productivity because we will attract more investment and existing businesses will operate at lower costs and be more competitive. Then they will be able to do more and pay more taxes.
The second part is that that programme of borrowing does not tell us the role of the private sector in infrastructure investment. Many countries are now discovering that as much as possible they can leverage the resources of government on the basis of one for five (1for 5), in other words, $1 of government money can attract $5 of private sector investment into infrastructure. I don’t see any clarity of vision for how the Nigerian government would do this leverage.That’s important because without it it’s going to be impossible for government alone to meet the infrastructure needs of our economy.
The campaign about diversification, especially the need to go into agriculture, is everywhere. Do you see a serious plan to go beyond talk?
The idea that diversification can be legislated on, that you can do it by fiat is actually very wrong-headed, extremely wrong-headed. Diversification happens on the back of providing the right infrastructure, providing the enabling environment and the incentive and an environment that’s less unpredictable, that offers some more confidence and stability. When that happens people have a propensity to want to invest. They will discover the opportunities themselves and the business of government then becomes to make life less difficult for individuals or companies to do the businesses they want to do; to make the environment so enabling that they are more productive and competitive because productivity enables competitiveness. Competitiveness is the basis of an environment being more preferred than other. So, I hope the government will get it monetary policies right..Diversification ultimately is a mix of the right macro-economic reforms and the right structural reforms.
Are you saying this government is timid with its economic policies?
It’s not timidity; it’s about doing the wrong things and being adamant about them. I feel that the government has not allowed itself to be persuaded by empirical evidence as the backbone for sound economic policy choices.
The 2016 Q3 figures from the National Bureau of Statistics were quite stark. What three things could the government have done to lessen the impact?
I think we need to look at what’s driving this inflation. A significant portion of the inflation came from the effect of poor exchange rate policy. . You know we suffered a massive drop in revenue and revenue for us is predominantly 90 per cent from oil exports and export earnings which really means that the foreign exchange we had dropped; we lost as much as 60 per cent of it. There is no way that the mathematics can add up that you now have less than 60 per cent of something and you continue to pretend that your price of that same thing would remain what it used to be. It’s not possible. That’s not even arithmetic not to talk of mathematics. Therefore, we needed to adjust our prices accordingly with the major shocks that we suffered in terms of export earnings. But we decided to ignore that and it sets off the prices we have seen. So, getting the monetary policy back to a sound path is going to be very important. Looking at the rate of moneysupply in the economy is going to be very, very important. Just watching the pattern of government spending to ensure that the spending is productive is going be important. All of these are key in the year ahead in order to bring down inflation.
What else does the government need to do this year to get public finance right?
Getting public finance right also includes improving the value for money. You have to ensure that don’t over spend and derail the economy; there’s a level of spending that government will do, it will derail the economy. Also, excessive fiscal activities by the government can derail the economy. Also, if the government spends on everything that’s consumption as against everything that’s productive as in capital investment, that’s a problem for public finance. So, it needs to guard the ratio of investment in capital budget versus recurrent budget as close enough as possible.If it can begin to achieve 60-40 but to achieve 60-40, it requires a massive scale down of the bureaucracy of the cost of doing business.
Then, it needs to be transparent. There is a seeming inadequacy of transparency in the management of the public budget so by providing quarterly reports on the performance of the budget the government can take care of that need for budget transparency. It can also work with the National Assembly to ensure that the details of the National Assembly budget will be made public. The public needs to know the composition of that spending by that arm of government.
The CBN governor and the Finance Minister sometime ago disagreed over what to do with interest rates. Do you think it should go up or down? Or is the issue more a fiscal one?
I am also not one of those that believe in just administratively fixing interest rate. The interest rate is a price just like the exchange rate is a price. Depending on the kind of policies you run, your interest rate can either be high or low. So, it depends on the context in which you are running your monetary and fiscal policies. The interest rate is very much dependent on the monetary target of the Central Bank and the Central Bank knows exactly what it’s targeting. It’s either targeting stable exchange rate or reasonable interest rate or low inflation. Sometimes, one has to give in order for you to achieve the other two; you can’t have your cake and eat it. So, the matter of the interest rate is also the consequence of the nature of the monetary policy target that the Central Bank has set and the more productive activities are going on in the country, the more you will have credit from incomes, savings, and therefore, investments necessary to accommodate the growth in aggregate demand. So, an economy that is more productive will have a tendency to generate a financial system that has diversity of resources for credit and over time the interest to save in that economy would be a pressure that brings down the cost of money.
Which states do you think are really serious about standing on a good financial footing?
The most viable state in the country today is Lagos because it has decoupled itself essentially from the rest of the economy by virtue of the fact that their internally generated revenue.There are states like Anambra too doing well and I think Rivers is another state too that has some significant internally generated revenue. All the other states are seriously pressed for alternative sources of revenue beyond what comes from the federal government. What it suggests is that we have not explored the opportunities available in the economy because people feel comfortable with just getting what’s allocated to them during the monthly FAAC meetings and how long will that be sustained? How long will the federal government continue to bail out the states because the federal government itself needs a bail-out?
You advise a number of African governments and 2016 has been a very difficult one, especially because of the problem with commodity prices. Which African country gives you the most hope in 2017 and why?
In West Africa, Cote d’Ivoire is leading the pack at the moment. And it’s leading the pack because President Quattara has managed to be very sensible in his choices of economic policies. The Cote d’Ivoire central bank has done a better job of monitoring the monetary policies of government. The government itself has been very good in pursuing very important reforms; fiscal reforms as well as structural reforms. It’s an economy that’s growing at the high level of seven to eight per cent. One key thing is to know that a country like Cote d’Ivoire - whose president I had the privilege of advising - with the policy choices they have made, you realise that there is no way they won’t be growing.
Another country is Ethiopia which is growing at least above five per cent to six and seven. One of the things that is going on in Ethiopia now it that it’s attracting a lot of companies from China which are finding the low cost of labour as an attraction for moving their light manufacturing industries in shoe making and a lot of things that are related to agric business and leather.
Another country that I look forward to seeing even better performance than it has so far done is Rwanda. Then, Tanzania - if it embraces fully the need to be more market driven - will do equally well.
What factors do you think will shape 2017?
It’s going to be the cry of a growing population of young people for jobs. For 2017, it’s going to be jobs, jobs and morejobs. I don’t think that people are going to be able to sustain a living in 2017 without jobs. It’s going to be a very important topic not just for Nigeria but for countries worldwide.
After the last release of 21 Chibok girls, all seems rather quiet. What is going on?
When the government secured the release of the girls I think on October 14. The following days they were assuring everyone that another set of about 83 girls was in the line to be released and that they were working assiduously to ensure it happened. One of the things that the government said that mattered to us as a movement was that it was pleading with the society not to make the kind of moves that could derail the negotiation. We as a movement took that very, very wisely. And we said we would cooperate by saying ‘we have seen 21, we will continue to sit at our unity every day and give them the time that they needed’. Our understanding was that this was going to happen on the heels of the 21. But we have now got to the point that we are worried that we are soon going to get to day 1000 since the Chibok girls were abducted and we wouldn’t have found any more of them. (This interview was conducted few weeks before the Day 1000).
What is the condition of the rescued girls?
Only what the government has said which is that they entered negotiation with the terrorists for which they released 21 girls. We don’t know more than that.
But have you seen the girls since then; are they ok?
We know they are under the management of the department of State Security Services and the DSS is working in collaboration with the National Hospital and many other medical experts to try and provide treatment so that they can recover fully. We’re now demanding for status report on their well-being.
The government appears to have shut out BBOG at one point. Correct?
You know I don’t know that the word is ‘shutting out’ because the Bring Back Our Girls movement has a stance since our advocacy that we’re not in any way a part of the government. We’re an independent citizens group determined to demand accountability from the government for its responsibility towards our Chibok girls. It was the fact that government failed to be responsive to our Chibok girls that led to their protracted captivity in the den of terrorists. So, it’s just a movement. We are not a part of government; we are the voice of demand for government to play its role so that doesn’t make government very happy. Whether it was the previous government or the current government, they cannot stand the fact that we are independent and saying they should discharge their responsibilities to the Chibok girls and other citizens. The government is not finding it funny. Does that worry us? Well, not at all because we’re doing what we should do. It would have been better for the government to understand that in a democracy it’s the right of the citizens to place a demand on their government.
Was ransom paid?
How can you be asking me questions I don’t know? I told you exactly to the extent we know. The government simply said that in a series of negotiations the first 21 girls were released on the good faith of negotiations that were ongoing and that they were not paid anything. I don’t have a counter-factual evidence to doubt what the government has said.
The struggle for the release of the girls appears to have consumed you. How do you cope? What does your family think of it?
Oh, my family is totally committed to this assignment of ensuring that young women who, more or less, have been neglected by the Nigerian government are found and brought back. The reason is that we shared a common vision from the beginning that our government did injustice to Chibok girls. If Chibok girls had been the children of the elite like myself I doubt that I would have needed to stay on the streets pleading with the government. We have seen cases of abduction and the speed with which the response had come. So, . So, for us as a family we thought that this wasn’t right and these were school girls. I was a minister of education in Nigeria and one of my key areas of focus as minister of education was girl child education, especially in the North east. That’s the region in Nigeria where we have the lowest parity ratio; you have for every three boys in school, one girl in school.
When these girls were taken it bitterly reminded me of what happened two months before their abduction when they went to BuniYadi, slaughtered the boys, burnt them to ashes and put the recording on the Internet and we did nothing as a country. That BuniYadi Federal Government College was a school I knew very well as minister of education. When that happened I was on the government, saying, ‘use this as a turning point in the war against Boko Haram. Prove to Boko Haram that they can’t do these to our children and get away with it’. For one week I kept pressing and nothing happened. Instead, what happened was that the government celebrated Centenary anniversary on the graves of children that were sent to school. So, when two months later the Chibok girls were packed and taken, I thought ‘I hope the government would immediately go after these people’ thinking that this was going to be a walk over. We screamed and they disregarded us for many weeks. By the time they were ready to engage, the girls were so gone. Something that was going to take us a month or at most two months, we are still advocating up till today simply because of our sense of integrity of purpose. We promised that we would not stop until the girls are brought back so we’re keeping to our word. Sometimes, it’s hard for Nigerians to understand this; we made a commitment. The girls are not all back. Until there’s a closure we can’t stop asking for our Chibok girls.
Do you have hope that the remaining girls would be released soon?
If I didn’t have hope I would have long given up
What is the source of your hope?
I just believe that there’s something divine about those girls; that our Chibok girls are divine and that there’s an Almighty God in heaven and in all of this a great testimony will come; that they came back and get another chance at life. I am hopeful for those girls. Each time I think of Esther Yakubu, the mother of one of those girls; she said to me ‘Aunty Oby, people say to me to give up, that the girl that would come back, even if she came back would not be my daughter, Dorcas. But I say to them, she’s my baby. No matter how she comes back I will nurse her back to being my baby that she was taken’That’s a mother’s cry.
What was it in your past that prepared you for your role in BBOG?
You know, what I know is that even as a little child I always stood up to fight on behalf of those who were weaker. When I was a child in primary and secondary schools, if I saw anybody trying to terrorise any of my schoolmates simply because they thought they could bully them, I would step in and take over the fight and just put an end to it. It’s been in my nature to take up bullies and be a voice for those who cannot find their voice. My past was a past where, as you know, as a young professional I was leading the Concerned Professionals to that advocated for the end of militarization in the 90s.
There were speculations that you may be invited to serve in the Buhari government. Were you approached at any time?
I had stated from the beginning that nothing was going to make me go back to serve in government. It was very, very clear. Since I left government in 2007, President Yar’Adua had wanted me to be in his cabinet, I said no. President Jonathan wanted me to be in his government and I said no. It has been no. I have been a minister; I don’t have any point to prove. I gave six and half years of my life to the government of Nigeria. I worked on reforming the public procurement system, the NEITI, Solid Minerals as a minister and the education ministry too as a minister. People don’t also remember that I was part of the power sector reforms that overhauled the power sector for the unbundling of NEPA and its evolution into the DISCOs and the passage of the power sector Act. I was a key member of President Obasanjo’s economic team so, there is nothing left for me to prove. I am someone driven by a sense of assignment. I am not a job seeker, who does job for the sake of job, no. I am usually driven by a sense of assignment. I haven’t felt that sense that’s why asking me to go into government would be totally uncalled for.
You worked under former President Obasanjo and saw the Jonathan government as on outsider. How would you assess each of these leaders?
I think the way to put it is that I served President Obasanjo in an environment where there was this sense that I had the freedom to drive the reforms that we agreed would be necessary for each of the aspect of the work I was responsible for. That’s important for me. I want to be able to know that I have unlimited freedom to be able to give my best to the work that I do. I don’t want to be wondering what’s going on around me, I want to be clear in my mind that the person who has given me a responsibility to discharge is absolutely committed to defending that responsibility.
Did you get that with Obasanjo?
I did. One of the things I say to people is that President Obasanjo knew the day he would have opened his mouth to say to me, ‘do something like this in Due Process’ I would simply have just have thrown in my letter and walked away.Not once did President Obasanjo say to me, ‘in this Due Process, this is what I want you to do’. As a matter of fact many of the politicians hated Due Process because it struck at the heart of their corruption activities. When they would come with all kinds of stories to get him to act against the department and our work, he would simply tell them that the Due Process also forced him to follow due process at the Villa and that they should all go and sort themselves out because he was also sorting himself out there in the Villa. That was very helpful because it sent a signal that we should be allowed to do our work and we came to be known in government as an independent unit that followed the standards of what you would find globally in ensuring that we were having more improvements in the transparency of public procurement. We went from a ratio of value for money of 45k for every N1 spent to 75k for every N1 spent. If we carried on we would have just got to as high as 90k for every N1 spent.It’s important that we should get there because that’s what it means to invest. If government invests and it does not get the value for investments then it’s not going to have that environment that we keep saying needs to be friendly for business.
For President Jonathan I cannot assess him as someone who knows him very well but I can assess him as a citizen and I can simply say that I was not impressed with his capacity to mobilise the efforts of even the brilliant minds he had and to provide a consistent direction for the necessary improvements that should have followed after the strong foundation was laid. Take a typical case of the matter of saving the windfall money. The system called the Excess Crude Account was set up. What happened to it?
But we were told that the governors didn’t allow him to save…
That’s not a sufficient excuse. If you say that as an excuse, then the federal government should have shown us its own savings from the windfall. Clearly there was a gap in the strength of leadership to be consistent with the ideals. For me those would be the way to capture the differences between the two leaders.
There is a section of public opinion saying, “give us corruption, but get the economy back on track.” Do you think it’s an irrational demand?
It’s not just an irrational demand, but it’s a very self-loathing demand. It means that those people loathe themselves. They loathe their generations unborn because the greatest disaster to this nation is the issue of corruption. For us to get to the place where people feel comfortable to say give us back corruption? Gosh, they need to repent. If they were saying ‘tackle corruption but face the economy’ then that makes sense because the two are not mutually exclusive. Citizens should not be heard saying things like that because things like these get into the hands of very parasitic political class we have had in this nation decades after decades; a buccaneering class of people that really just act like locust over the nation. You can’t say give us back corruption and face the economy; you will still not be a great nation.
What would you describe as the watershed moment in your public service career?
Hmmnn…there are so many of them because as you know, I was the economic team member who moved the most, from one assignment toanother assignment and each assignment had its own interesting moments. I think that seeing what had happened in our country (it was devastating). Initially 1 was angry that the president would move me once again from another assignment to a new one, especially after all the work we had done in the solid minerals sector. But I picked up a different kind of anger when as I normally would do, asked for the collection of the data to show us the state of affairs in the education sector and by the time I looked at it I knew that the country was in trouble. This time, I picked up anger against my own elite class because I said I could easily have stayed in this government and gone away thinking we had done such a great job only for it to be that education was in this state. So, I decided that if I was only going to spend two weeks in that sector, I must do whatever I could do and so that led to the range of reforms in the sector. Do you know the number of reforms measures for education compared to the 107 in the solid minerals sector; 403. The unity schools reform was just a fraction of it.
You seem to be quite fond of your father. What is it about him that stays with you?
He was a man of honour and integrity. My father was a man of character. My father would say to us, ‘we’re not rich in material things; we’re wealthy in values. As a child I heard that all the time. So, every early in life being rich in material things was not a priority for me; I wanted to be wealthy in values and those values have brought me very far, haven’t they? I remember some of those people who were children of my father’s colleagues who were living a better life because their parents would do all kinds of things but not my father. He would say, ‘I will not spend accursed money on you’. Why would I then be any different? My father didn’t spend accursed money on me; I must not spend accursed money on my children. My dad lived his values and they were attractive. We didn’t see him to preach to us, he just lived the values. He always said to us that he was not leaving us any landed property or any money in bank accounts, rather he was leaving us his name and that if we messed it up he would come back from the grave and knock us with his walking stick. We literally believed that our father would do that; that’s the kind of person he was. When I think of my dad and try to compare him with a whole lot of other relationships that I’m seeing, I tell myself, ‘I’m happy this person is not my dad’. We tell our children that we’re an improvement on our dad so they must be an improvement on us. That’s what it means to build generations.My father was my best man. Now, my husband is my best man.
Women leaders around the world seem to be facing a lot of difficulties. In Brazil and South Korean the presidents were both impeached and in the US, Hillary Clinton lost the election? Is the tide rolling back?
You should always watch the trend not temporary setbacks. When you look around in terms of numbers, we have many more women in leadership positions around the world now than we’ve ever had so the trend remains consistently positive.
Now, some of these big-ticket leadership reversals that we see are important lessons for us as women. To understand how to lead within a political context that is entrenched in certain kinds of ways andpatterns of thinking. The skills that we need to build; the kinds of ways of mobilising support; the networks that we to build; these are very important for enduring leadership in women. If you knew Brazil and South Korea, go and study their politics, it’s the kind of back-room dirty-dealing kind of politics. So, a woman can easily just be swept away. The next set of women are going to learn a lesson of what it was these two women could have done and handled differently.You can’t trace that there was any kind of corruption by these two women but there was that understanding that the system suddenly picked up the same things that were ignored when it was a man that was there. The women have to be extra vigilant. In the case of Hillary you could see that she got more popular votes; almost three million more popular votes than Donald Trump but the electoral college system was against her. There are many lessons coming out these events and many more women are paying attention. Women should not feel defeated at all because it’s a temporary setback. I believe that we will sooner have a female president in the US than we would have more male presidents and that the emergence of Trump is probably going to accelerate the emergence of a female leader.
What about in Nigeria?
You know, in the Nigerian context, we haven’t done well; female participation in politics is still paltry. That’s why we currently have less than seven or eight per cent of women in the National Assembly. So, we haven’t even started at all. But one of the things I have found very encouraging is the level of awareness. There’s a massive build-up of political consciousness among the generation next to ours. These young women are activists on the political consciousness issues like their male counterparts; they are so totally not forgiving. You know my generation can take it easy but not that one next to us.
Orji Uzor Kalu recently said Igbos are their own worst enemies in Nigerian politics as many of them are more inclined to look after their selfish interests, do you agree with him?
What I would probably say is that we haven’t as Igbo people taken advantage of the greatest competitive advantage we have. The competitive strength that we have is that, of all the ethnic groups in this country, we’re the ones more open to being mobile and mobility means that we are so ready to collaborate. We are cosmopolitan and not provincial. This also means that we have a huge network of friendship that can help us get a lot of things done. But we have a tendency to be both mobile and insular at the same time. We now need to take advantage of this mobility as a people. A Nigeria that functions is of great benefit to the Igbo person. We should be working hard to ensure that this large country functions because we are very competitive in the things that we do.
So you don’t believe in the pro-Biafra agitation?
I believe that it’s our business to ensure that the Nigeria we found ourselves in now functions.