Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited

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Okonjo-Iweala and the need for the return of experts 12 Feb 2018

Ngozi Okonjo_Iweala
Former Nigerian Finance Minister and Fmr World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

One reality that is staring at us as Nigerians, following the economic and social climate that has evolved over nearly the past three years, is that technical expertise is important in formulating government policies and delivering results. Our sense of disappointment over the specific failures of the last administration had made us to develop a general, snide view of technocrats and technocracy. Surely, most of us have developed a change of heart by now.
Our lesson has come at a great cost, though, for everyone. The economy plunged into its worst downturn in 25 years in 2016, resulting in the rise of the unemployment rate from single digit in 2015 to 18.6 percent at the end of Q3 2017. While the welfare of Nigerians has taken a big hit, the government itself and the ruling party are now severely fractured as a result of the poor performances.

As a matter of principle, a government is best served by the best people of the country. But not all the experts can be accommodated in the government. Some citizens with high-level expertise would prefer to operate in the private sector and in the international systems. Nevertheless, all the experts must be encouraged to have a role in the quest of the government to improve the country. This is of symbolic and material importance in driving societal progress and fostering a meritocracy.

With this realisation, and against the backdrop that some “angels” were going to displace experts in the then-incoming administration of President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, I wrote an article, entitled “Nigeria still needs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala” in the first week of his inauguration. NOI, as I would like to refer to her, was of both metaphorical and literal connotations.

In a piece I wrote two months earlier, which should show my view as not only apolitical but consistent, I had bemoaned the departures of Kingsley Moghalu and Arunma Oteh from the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Securities and Exchange Commission, respectively. In spite of their high-level expertise and performances, they were not reappointed for the statutory second term by the government they had served quite creditably. It is now beneath the realm of a serious debate that these departures marked the beginning of a downturn in the concerned institutions.

In response to my advocacy that Nigeria still needed NOI, I received cynical comments to the effect that she was not the only economic expert Nigeria had, and that people like her should move on to prove their worth elsewhere after serving the government for some time. The first view had misjudged the drift towards anti-experts, which was soon to become apparent when President Buhari unveiled his ministerial nominees a few months later. And now, it is obvious that the few technocrats in the cabinet have quite narrow latitude to operate with free hands.

The second view was basically ignorant, or conveniently so. The world-class technocrats I have mentioned, and several others that have served the government since 1999, were appointed from some international – if not global – institutions. From the stand point of Nigeria's development, such experts should not have to go back to the foreign or international institutions to prove anything again. Their expertise is more needed at home, although they are the darlings of the international institutions who wouldn't even waste time to snatch them back.

Within a few months of her disengagement, Ms Oteh was appointed Vice President and Treasurer at the World Bank in Washington D.C. With the same alacrity, Dr. Moghalu was appointed a Professor of Practice at the influential Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, also in the United States, apart from his board appointments to a string of international bodies and think tanks.

So, how has Nigeria and NOI fared since her disengagement from the government in 2015? NOI did not serve the country as president. But she had an unprecedented and influential role in policymaking and market development. Beyond the general economic woes already mentioned, the country has struggled with policymaking generally. Government's expansionary budgets have been poorly funded, although the huge borrowing by the current administration should have countered the slump in the oil revenue. Between June 2015 and September 2017,  the federal share of the public debt had risen by N4.1 trillion.

After raising the pump price of petrol by 67 percent, oil prices above $60 per barrel have seen the return of both petrol scarcity and payment of subsidy. Nigerians that were rightly scandalised by the astronomically high level of subsidy the previous government paid to petrol marketers – on account of the fraud involved – don't even know how much subsidy is being paid by the current regime, given the opacity of the payments in the absence of budgetary allocation.

After over a year of abandoning the reform programmes of its predecessor, carbon copies of the programmes have now been adopted. But their implementation – whether it is the N-Power programme or the e-wallet system for administering fertiliser distribution – are neither transparent nor effective. The School Feeding Programme, which was a major part of the N500 billion Social Investment Programme of the administration has remained at the pilot stage, after two years of discreditable implementation. The catalogue of woes is endless.

As for NOI, she has been serving the international systems in very influential roles, and in some of the most important interventions for developing countries. NOI is the chair of the board of African Risk Capacity. The ARC is a specialised agency of the African Union. It aims to help Member States of the AU to improve their capacities to better plan, prepare and respond to extreme weather events and natural disasters. Its intervention is now very critical in protecting the food security of Africa's vulnerable populations who are affected by climate change.

Through the insurance vehicle of the African Risk Capacity, NOI is leading the ARC to mobilise private sector resources for perhaps the most mission-critical operation Africa has in the 21st century, which is to foster green development, restore livelihoods to populations affected by climate change, and foster resilience to climate disasters on the continent.

At the global level, NOI is the co-chair of the Global Commission on the Economy. The GCE was commissioned by the governments of Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom as an independent initiative for reporting how countries can achieve economic growth while dealing with the risks posed by climate change. The Commission comprises former heads of government and finance ministers and leaders in the fields of economics and business. The flagship programme of the Commission is the New Climate Economy, which provides independent and authoritative evidence on the relationship between actions which can strengthen economic performance and those which reduce the risk of dangerous climate change.

NOI is also the chair of the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Some of the preeminent partners of Gavi include UNICEF, WHO, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who hold permanent seats as the partners of the global institution. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, Gavi brings together public and private sectors with the shared goal of creating equal access to vaccines for children, wherever in the world.
Last July, NOI was appointed an independent non-executive director of the global emerging markets bank, Standard Chartered Bank. She has been a senior advisor at Lazard since September 2015. In October of the same year, she was appointed a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development. In addition, she is on the international advisory panel of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, amongst several other board and advisory positions she holds in several institutions.

A role in the Nigerian government would have been an opportunity cost to her. Put differently, her engagement by these global institutions translates to missed opportunities for Nigeria. Fortunately, the coverage of the Vaccine Alliance and the African Risk Capacity extends to Nigeria. In which case, the country has not entirely lost out on the expertise and influence of NOI since she left the Nigerian government in May 2015.

Nigeria is a place where its outstanding citizens are celebrated when they are deceased. But this should not continue to be the case. No individual has had more influence on Nigeria's market development than NOI. She helped the country to set up the Debt Management Office in 2000 to completely revolutionise debt management in Nigeria. Until the DMO was founded, the country was unable to ascertain its exact debt figures and the domestic debt market was comatose. Today, data on public debt is accurately produced, near real time, and the local debt market has been functioning since 2003. The well-functioning domestic debt market has enabled the current administration to raise over N6 trillion in domestic borrowing to finance the budget deficits of the past three years.

Amongst several other landmark achievements of NOI in Nigeria was the debt exit deals of 2005/2006, which saved the country $18 billion while helping it to remove the overhang of foreign debt of the previous decade. That deal, which President Olusegun Obasanjo pursued as a priority, paved the way for the efforts of the current administration to rebalance the public debt by refinancing maturing domestic debt with external borrowing.

Nigerians should yearn for the return of the experts and the return of expertise in government. This is not an advocacy for any particular individual. Nigeria needs to return to appreciable meritocracy. Indeed, the primacy of expertise in government is not only important for driving economic outcomes. It is now very key for social reengineering, towards ending the reign of mediocrity in our society.

Jide Akintunde is the Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria publications. He is also Director, Nigeria Development and Finance Forum.