When news came in that Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala had been appointed Minister of finance and coordinator national economic management team, a lot of people rejoiced because it was widely held that the newly elected President had gone for a very competent finance expert to lead the financial affairs of the county. It is easy to understand such feelings. Our own Dr Okonjo-Iweala is after all a managing director of the World Bank and was educated at Harvard, she has a PhD in Regional Economics and Development from MIT and lest we forget, she also has a lot of honorary doctorate degrees from various universities across the globe.
It is very important to mind the gap when moving from objective or general to specific for a lot can vary in-between. In efficient and unadulterated recruitments and elections, it is the suitability of a candidate for a specific context that ultimately determines why he or she is selected above and in place of other equally eligible candidates more or less qualified. All cardinals are eligible to the throne of Saint Peter but only the one perceived as most suitable for the specific historical context is elected to be pope. The substantial proof of such suitability naturally unfolds during his activities in office.
Since her second coming into office as Minister of finance and coordinator national economic management team, Dr Okonjo-Iweala has, through her deeds and utterances, made the issue of the sovereign national wealth her major battle. She announced victory and reiterated her case for the controversial fund last week during the just concluded Rivers State Investors Forum. In evaluating the performance and suitability of the Hon. Minister and coordinator, some of the fundamental elements to include in the matrix are law, economics, politics, history, and of course a good understanding of her country’s reality.
When one places her resolve for the sovereign wealth fund within such matrix, one cannot but ask if Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is really suitable to be the Minister of finance and coordinator national economic management team in today’s Nigeria.
In case she and those like her are not aware, Nigeria today is yes an oil rich country, but it is also a country wherein majority of the citizens survive on less than three US dollars a day and where most parts of the land is in dire need of basic services such as access to portable water, stable electricity, good roads, efficient healthcare and functional schools worthy of such description. To this long list we must add that state governors and local chairs across the country, who by nature closer to the citizens, all lament that they have no money to carry out urgently needed projects in their constituencies. To say Nigeria cannot afford to save yet is an understatement. Why should a poor man that can barely afford to feed himself or pay his rent be asked to save? What is he saving for? His funeral?
Dr Okonjo-Iweala gave those criticizing her fund what will appear to be a strong reason last week when she explained that “the Sovereign Wealth Fund is not just an instrument for saving for the next generation but it is also an instrument to protect us from price volatility and it helps us to save our economy from crisis”. No Hon Minister, your political economy is wrong. Diversification, not savings will protect us from price volatility and helps us to save our economy from crisis, what we need is to strengthen other sectors of our economy such as agriculture and services, promote manufacturing, build capacities and create jobs. To do all these we need to spend not save.
Whilst we are at it, let us look into some financials. At what rate are we saving and at what rate are we borrowing? What is the expected return on the money we save and how much do lenders from the World Bank, investment bankers and our own high street bankers want us to pay them when we go to borrow for our hospitals, roads, schools and water projects? Check what Eurobonds will cost and what private partners want when they decide work in partnership with our public bodies to provide public utilities.
Another aspect Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and her team seem to be neglecting is the history of this whole issue in Nigeria. It is not the first time the concept of putting aside some money has come up. The last time it was called excess crude account and we all know what happened to that account.
To prove she is really suitable for the job of managing our finances and that her approach built on the creation of the Sovereign Wealth Fund is the most appropriate for us, Dr Okonjo-Iweala needs to answer a lot of questions and prove to us that she understands Nigeria and that she is really in touch with Nigerians. She has not done that till date and we wonder if she is suitable for this job.