By LEKE ADESERI with Agency report & EMMA UJAH, Abuja Bureau Chief
MANAGING Director at the World Bank and former Finance and Foreign Affairs Minister under former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said, yesterday, she has been receiving threat calls from corrupt politicians and business elite not to return home for ministerial appointment.
Okonjo-Iweala who revealed this in an interview with the Financial Times of London, said she responded to the threat calls by saying: “But I cannot give up on Nigeria.”
She added: “Nigeria matters not just because it is the largest country in Africa by population but also because it is so significant for the rest of West Africa. If Nigeria gets it right, things would really move on, so we need to do better.”
Okonjo-Iweala has since returned to the country and appeared before the Senate screening panel, Wednesday, where she answered questions on how she hoped to improve fiscal policies and the nation’s economy.
When she served as Finance Minister under Obasanjo between 2003 and 2006, she played a key role in rehabilitating the nation’s battered image. Her efforts yielded fruitful dividend when she successfully persuaded creditor nations that the nation was serious and willing to forsake her wasteful spending to justify a write-off of two thirds of her external debt then put at $30 billion.
The debt relief helped the economy to begin a take off with improvement in macro-economic management and market reforms that liberated parts of the business sector.
However, when Okonjo_Iweala was posted to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, she resigned from the Obasanjo cabinet and returned to her duty at the World Bank.
With the coming into office of the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2007, the economic gains he inherited soon fizzled out as the fiscal mismanagement led to the squandering of the oil windfall.
Okonjo-Iweala told London Financial Times that she would tighten up fiscal policy again and revive the battle against corruption.
She said President Goodluck Jonathan had been persuading her for several weeks to come back home and assist government to formulate the right type of economic policies that could sustain the confidence that foreign investors now have in the nation.
Okonjo-Iweala’s return home to the cabinet of Jonathan might give her the opportunity to once again strengthen economic reforms which is an uphill battle against vested economic and political interests blocking change.
However, some allies fear she might be isolated in a cabinet still being formed but with a few other nominees with a record for reform and some already tarnished image.
But Okonjo-Iweala said her priority will be for a team similar to the one that brought change under Obasanjo adding: “It is not only about technical expertise but also about having those who know how to put across difficult policies.”
Okonjo-Iweala returns to Washington
Meanwhile, Okonjo-Iweala, has returned to her base in Washington D.C, United States of America, to tidy up her desk before resuming as a member of President Goodluck Jonathan’s cabinet.
Dependable sources in Abuja said the MD who is making a come_back to the nation’s economic scene within five years flew out of the country, Wednesday night.
Sources were not sure of the specific date of her return but said that it would be “very soon,” given the urgency with which President Jonathan intends to address problems of the real sectors of the economy.
Okonjo_Iweala who has spent virtually all her working life at the World Bank is expected to team up with expert fund manager and immediate past Minister of Finance, Olusegun Aganga, and Prof Bath Nnaji to form the nucleus of the President’s National Economic Management Team in the next four years.
Vanguard learnt that while President Jonathan would depend on Okonjo_Iweala’s macro-economic management expertise, Aganga would be the focal point for directing the Sovereign Wealth Fund investment, while Prof Nnaji would provide leadership in the direction towards meeting set goals in power supply delivery.
Sources said the next economic team would be pushing for a drastic cut in recurrent budget currently put at about 74 per cent at the federal level, a record both Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and Mr. Aganga described as unhealthy for the needed development.
Also to top the team’s priority list would be greater funding of job creating real sectors of the economy.
Vanguard also learnt that the team would work towards convincing their colleagues in the Federal Executive Council and the legislature to significantly cut recurrent budget in favour of the capital component.
Specifically, overhead costs would be the immediate target in the move to reduce recurrent to save funds for investments in infrastructure, especially power, roads and rail tracks agriculture and the manufacturing sectors.
Okonjo-Iweala and Aganga who were screened and approved by the Senate on Wednesday had told the legislators that the current lopsided budget in favour of recurrent could only hurt the economy.
Okonjo-Iweala had said: “In the previous government where I served, we tried hard to put in place sensible fiscal policies that would enable us have a reasonable fiscal deficit but also allowed us to be able to implement the projects that were being financed by resources of this country.
“I strongly believe that we should try as much as possible, as a country, to live within our means, and right now, we must work very hard because the budget that we have is such that the recurrent expenditure is almost 74 per cent of the budget and therefore, there is not much left for capital.
“We, therefore, have to continue to implement policies that will enable us to tackle the various challenges in the economy, while at the same time living within our means”.
With an unemployment rate of between 14 -15 per cent, Okonjo-Iweala opined that her fiscal policy would be such that would be supportive of sector that would create jobs.
She observed that the economy was growing but that there was need for that growth to be translated into jobs for the nation’s teeming youths.