Nigeria: Background to economic reforms by Okonjo-Iweala

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By Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

My introduction to economic reform in my country really began in 2000 when, at the invitation of President Obasanjo, I took a leave of absence from my job at the World Bank to return to Nigeria for six months to serve as his Economic Adviser. My remit was very specific: advise the president on how to manage Nigeria’s debt so that the country could begin the process of seeking and obtaining debt relief from its largely Western group of official creditors, all members of the Paris Club.

I first met President Obasanjo in 1999, shortly after he won the elections but before he was sworn in as president. He had decided to visit important Western capitals to engage in discussions about Nigeria’s problems and to share his vision and his agenda for the country’s economic and social recovery from the “dead” years of General Abacha’s dictatorship.

His public relations adviser, Onyema Ugochukwu, a relative and a close friend of my husband, thought that he needed additional briefing on topical international economic issues of the time, as well as specific advice on how to approach Western leaders on issues of concern to Nigeria, such as lifting the country’s debt burden and improving its image.

Onyema Ugochukwu phoned me one Saturday morning in March 1999 and asked me to put together a brief that would help President Obasanjo prepare for his proposed world tour. The brief I put together focused on Nigeria’s most pressing economic problems, especially its debt, and on how the international community could contribute to solutions.

In particular, I suggested to the president that he might make the case to the international community that their support to solve pressing economic problems in Nigeria would yield the country a much needed “democracy dividend” after decades of military rule. The president liked the brief and the notion of a “democracy dividend.” He used the expression extensively throughout his term in office.

I met President Obasanjo in person when he came to the United States a few weeks later. In January of 2000, he requested that I return to Nigeria as his Economic Adviser for six months. My work in those six months focused on sorting out the extent of the country’s most important financial liabilities (including its US$30 billion in external debt), on getting the seven different offices managing different parts of the debt to cooperate with one another so we could begin to reconcile figures, and ultimately on creating a national Debt Management office (DMO) to bring some clarity and rationality to debt management. This work laid the foundation for my return as Minister of Finance three years later.

Building an Economic Team

In 2003, President Obasanjo won a second term in office and decided to focus much harder on reforming Nigeria’s faltering economy. He needed a modern and technocratic finance minister who was familiar with the fierce politics of the time. My name was suggested to him by Lady Lynda Chalker, a former International Development Secretary of the United Kingdom based on recommendations from two other reformers-Nasir EI Rufai and Oby Ezekwesili-with whom I had struck a friendship during my short stint at home.

Since President Obasanjo was already familiar with my work, I seemed a logical choice, so he rang up my boss-James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank-to ask him to persuade me to resign my job as vice president and corporate secretary of the World Bank to become Nigeria’s Minister of Finance.

When Jim Wolfensohn approached me, I was torn and conflicted on both a personal and a professional level. On the personal level, my financial situation was different than it had been in 2000 during my advisory stint at home. Then, I had been able to forgo some of my earnings and benefits to serve because we had only one child attending a university.

By 2003, we had two, and a third getting ready to go, and the main question that my husband and I had to confront was how to manage all the financial obligations without going into debt if I went home to serve President Obasanjo. On a professional level, setting up the Debt Management Office had been an eye-opening experience and at the same time a fulfilling one.

I thought this would be an unprecedented opportunity to serve my country again, with a new democracy in place and a president who seemed open to change. But I had also experienced firsthand some of the complicated politics of implementing reform.

Even with an issue as technical as debt management, there were people who were vested in the status quo and did not want change. It seemed to me that reforming the management of the country’s debt would be a picnic in comparison with the challenges I would face as a Minister of Finance.

This time, virtually every aspect of the economy would have to be reformed. A comprehensive strategy would be needed to stabilise Nigeria’s volatile macroeconomic environment, tackle endemic corruption, and redress various structural features of the economy hindering private enterprise. The country’s woeful social indicators and abysmal delivery of basic services such as power, water, and transportation would have to be addressed. The prospects were daunting.

Surely designing and implementing such wide-ranging reforms could not be done by one person alone. Were I to accept, I would need advice on how to approach that enormous task. And accept I did, after two weeks of reflection and consultation with family members and friends, many of whom were opposed to the idea because they felt it was too great a risk to my professional reputation. Many felt that somehow, to quote one of my friends, “my reputation would be rubbished” – either by those who would be against me in government or others outside.

Jim Wolfensohn proffered a great deal of wise advice that tended to confirm my own feelings that this could be a unique opportunity to give back to my country. Because the World Bank had a rule mandating resignation for those accepting policy-making positions, I resigned from my position there once I had decided to accept the offer from Nigeria.

The financial problems were sorted out by President Obasanjo’s approach to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to open a Diaspora Fund similar to the arrangement they had worked out for Afghanistan and other countries.

Returning members of the Nigerian Diaspora would be paid their previous salaries for a year or two until they could make adequate financial arrangements to take care of their existing obligations abroad. Several of us returning to Nigeria benefited from this fund, and it made a clear difference in our ability to return at short notice. The arrangement later became controversial.

Referred to in the news media as the” dollar salary” saga, it was seized on and played up over and over again by anti-reform elements to imply that I was somehow less than committed to Nigeria because I was being paid more than the other ministers, and in foreign currency.

Neither the circumstances in which I took the job, nor the fact that I was not the only official being thus paid, nor even the fact that it was a transitional arrangement and that I gave it up during my last 15 months of work got much play in the media.

As I contemplated the tasks before me, there were no manuals to tell me what to do, so I turned to someone who had just had some success in managing economic reforms. Amaury Bier, Brazil’s former deputy finance minister had just joined the Board of the World Bank as Alternate Executive Director after four years of implementing successful  economic reforms under the Cardoso administration. Jim Wolfensohn suggested I talk to him. How did they do it? What practical day to day steps did they take?

The first piece of advice Amaury Bier gave me was critical. “You will need to form an Economic Team of like-minded people who can stick together to fight the tough battles,” he emphasized. In Brazil, he had learned the hard way, a team was essential to bring different perspectives and expertise to the design of the reform program, but, more important, to help push through the cabinet the approval of proposed reforms.

Without team members supporting one another in cabinet, important reforms displacing vested interests could easily be blocked, he emphasized. He also counseled that building team spirit and keeping the team working together would be important as the reforms began to bite, since some people would be interested in dividing the team and fomenting dissension. To avoid this, Bier urged, the team should meet frequently-at least once a week-to discuss progress and problems.

A second piece of advice Bier gave was equally important: there was need for a comprehensive strategy that would set out major challenges and the reforms needed to turn these around. In particular, it would be important to build in the sustainability of such reforms right from the start to avoid later reversals. One good tool was the enactment of legislation to underpin reforms.

Armed with this advice, I flew to Nigeria in May 2003 to discuss the scope of my job and to get President Obasanjo’s agreement on the formation of a Presidential Economic Team. The president readily agreed to the team, noting that I would lead it and he would preside over it as chair.

Working with him, colleagues and I came up with a list of twelve members representing the areas of expertise that various reforms would require. These twelve people – with expertise in macroeconomics, microeconomics, debt management, privatisation, private-sector development, governance, anti-corruption measures, civil-service reform, and budget management – became the core of the team.

One appointment of particular importance (because he or she would have the ear of the president every day) was that of Economic Adviser to the president. We needed a sound macroeconomist-something Nigeria had not had in many years – who would reinforce the importance of the reforms. I nominated Charles Chukwuma Soludo, who later became a Central Bank Governor.

The  team faced many challenges and tensions in keeping together, some of these stoked from outside. One early challenge occurred in July 2003 right after cabinet members had been sworn in. The president invited all the new members and other top officials and presidential advisers to a one-day retreat to explain his priorities and objectives for the administration and also to familiarise most of us who had never been in government with the main public service rules and imperatives.

Most of the new members of the Economic Team were there. We sat close to one another in some kind of solidarity. The retreat was well under way when the president announced (completely out of the blue, to me) that he would be moving the Budget Office of the Federation, normally part of the Ministry of Finance, to the Office of the President, along with the new budget director, who was also a member of the Economic Team.

I could hardly believe what I had heard, and turned to a team member to double check if I had heard correctly. It
was already evident that drastic reform of the budget process and of budget priorities would be central to the reforms. It would be important to link such reforms to changes in the financial management system in the finance ministry. Removing the Budget Office was akin to ripping the heart from the chest.

I felt that this would make major changes impossible to achieve and would furthermore deprive the Ministry of Finance of a central economic and political function. I was also in shock because the president had not discussed this with me. I thought, as the Minister of Finance, that he would at least mention such a major change to me, and maybe even ask my opinion of it. The fact that he had not done this was a major eye opener.

I felt two things. First, I could not be Minister of Finance with a major function removed. It would be a hollow job. I would be unable to complete the reforms I had come to Nigeria to complete, and therefore there would be no need for my services. Second, the president evidently did not trust me.

Otherwise, why would he not even have mentioned such a momentous change? I was angry and confused. To shield my feelings from public view, I got up and left the meeting hall. Other members of the Economic Team followed me out of the hall in concern and solidarity. By the time I walked out, I had resolved to leave.

I went ahead and wrote my letter of resignation. I then called the president’s office and asked if I could see him after the retreat. I as granted an evening appointment. I took my resignation letter with me and handed it to the president in an audience filled with tension.

He flung the letter at me and said I was free to resign and leave. I took that at face value, thanked him, and left. I later found out that the flinging of the letter was a sign for me to apologise and withdraw my resignation, but I was as yet untutored in presidential mannerisms and probably still would have resigned had I known what the gesture meant.

That evening, several people came to see me and to put pressure on me to withdraw my resignation. I refused. At the same time, two important members of the president’s inner circle – Principal Secretary Steve Oronsaye and Vice President Alhaji Atiku Abubakar – put pressure on him to reconsider and find a way out.

The president asked me to come back to see him the following morning. I attended the meeting with my father for support. At that meeting, the president told me that he had decided that the Budget Office could stay in the Ministry of Finance but the budget director would be reporting to him.

Mapping out the reform strategy

Even before the reform team had coalesced, some of us who formed the core of the reformers had begun to brainstorm on a strategy that would encapsulate the reforms. Nigeria was really not short on strategies, plans, or visions. We had Vision 2010, which attempted to articulate a way forward for the country’s development.

But this vision was actually not successfully translated into a medium-term program that could be implemented and monitored. We knew that we had to produce a medium-term plan that would pass three tests. It needed a sound diagnosis of the country’s socioeconomic problems; it needed to propose solutions; and it needed to translate the solutions into specific actions that would produce results and could be monitored.

We also knew that, in view of skepticism in the country about reforms and change, we would have to achieve some early victories that would signal change. My training at the World Bank, where I had worked on many reform matrices for a variety of low-income and middle-income countries, would come in handy.

The impetus for quick work on the  strategy came from a meeting scheduled for September 2003 between President Obasanjo and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss Obasanjo’s quest for debt relief and for a return of public assets that had been stolen from Nigeria and lodged in the UK.

The president had proposed that the Economic  Team accompany him to this meeting to explain Nigeria’s proposed new economic reforms. I solicited written inputs from members of the Economic Team already working on important areas of reform – privatisation, budget monitoring, and price intelligence linked to public procurement reform.

For example, over a weekend, using their inputs, I produced a 17-page paper outlining the major economic and social problems and especially highlighting the problem of Nigeria’s huge external debt overhang, which was a drag on investment and economic growth.

I proposed a set of macroeconomic and structural reforms focusing on budget management and priority setting; fiscal reforms; liberalisation and deregulation of important economic sectors; privatisation of important public enterprises; governance and institutional reforms, including public service reform; and anti-corruption actions, especially concerning public procurement.

After completing the first draft, I invited comments and inputs from team members, then translated the paper into a PowerPoint presentation for the president’s review and comment, including a set of matrices of specific reform actions with a timeline.

I presented the plan first to a joint UK technical team from the Department of International Development and the Treasury, which wanted to make sure we had something serious to share with the prime minister, and then to the prime minister himself.

Prime Minister Blair also invited World Bank president, Jim Wolfensohn to the meeting to get his views on Nigeria’s reforms. With a successful presentation, we knew we had the basis to deepen the analysis into a full-fledged program of change for the economy, incorporating action in essential sectors, including agriculture, education, and health.

During that visit to the UK, the Economic Team stayed late into the night further debating the content and even the name for the strategy. We bandied various names around. It was Nasir EI Rufai who came up with the name that we would eventually use for the strategy: the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS).

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