Time to go, Dr Okonjo-iweala –1

By Dele Sobawale

“Nobody steps into the same river twice.” Chinese proverb.

To this, Albert Camus,1903-1960, Algeria born French philosopher and Nobel Prize Winner, in Return to Tipasa, added. “It is a mistake, almost often punished to return to a place one once loved and hope to regain the same ardour.” Madam Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance, is like a “fish out of water; flapping on the pier.”

She does not belong in this government and her reputation is being rubbished everyday she stays longer. It is time to go. Before providing the reasons, let me take our readers down memory lane; to last year when Dr Okonjo-Iweala was first unveiled as the Finance Minister. In an article titled WELCOME DR OKONJO-IWEALA, I made certain predictions about her fate the second time around which are coming true right before our eyes. Please read on.


“Let me say this first, the whole thrust of what the President wants for now is the creation of jobs. So, everything that we do in terms of pushing the economy has to be geared at how we can have true job growth in the economy”.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala, Federal Minister of Finance, August 17, 2011 at Aso Rock, Abuja.

“The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes [underlining mine].

John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946, in “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” published in 1936.

The topic of this series of essays is EMPLOYMENT, whose synonym is “creation of jobs” as you announced after you were sworn in as the Federal Minister of Finance for the second time. To be quite candid, I don’t envy you; whether you are paid in dollars or even your weight in gold.

As a practitioner of the dismal science, called economics myself, and being aware of the global situation on unemployment, I really admire your courage which borders on martyrdom. To start with, one remembers the warning by Albert Camus, 1903-1960, the Algerian born existentialist philosopher who wrote that, “it is a mistake almost always punished to return to a place which one once loved and hope to regain the same ardour.”

Only time will tell if you made the right decision to return. It is doubtful if it will be as successful as the first time for reasons too numerous to disclose. A few will serve for now..

Your first turn as Minister of Finance in 2003, occurred under totally different circumstances and it was a situation tailor-made for some success. You met $36 billion in external reserves, thanks to sudden upsurge in the price of crude oil and Nigeria’s external debt was less than that amount.

So you convinced the government to pay off the debt. Granted, it was not a universally endorsed decision (I was opposed to it), but even your severest critics must acknowledge that, at least for a short spell, Nigeria got off the list of debtor nations.

Because history never tells us its alternatives, only God knows what your recommendations would have been if the debt in 2003 was $36 billion and the external reserves only $10 billion. One thing is certain, no private businessman would have made that decision for the simple reason that creditors don’t want the loan to be totally repaid; they are satisfied collecting their interests once they are assured that the lender has the capacity to pay. Nigeria in 2003 had the capacity. But, why cry over spilled milk?

As you resume office, you will find in the handing over note given to you that the country has rejoined debtor nations despite record crude oil prices since your departure. Like Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, the rock you rolled up hill has been allowed to roll down again by your predecessors with nothing to show for the indebtedness. Perhaps you will help Nigerians to find out what was done with all the new funds borrowed on our behalf.

Having, more or less, extended my hand to welcome you back, let us very quickly move to discussions about your core mandate – job creation. Several individuals had taken it upon themselves to set agenda for you. Not being your direct bosses, it would appear presumptuous for anybody other than President Jonathan to hand you a job description. However, now that you have announced the programme yourself, anybody and everybody who has an idea on the matter can now participate in the debates that will surely follow.

Prior to your arrival, the Minister of Trade and Investments, your immediate predecessor in the Ministry of Finance had taken a luxury busload of people to a picnic, masquerading as retreat, which ended by issuing a communiqué which is as timely as one issued in 1990. In other words, the document was a bloody waste of everybody’s time and public money.

The holiday makers, however, made a promise on job creation. They will create three million jobs in three years. Now with a 24-member Economic Team, headed by the President, and you as the “Coordinator”, the first and most urgent question is: is the team committed to the three million job target set by Mr Aganga and Co or are we supposed to expect another target figure?

By the way, three million jobs in three years translates to 2,800 jobs everyday. Never mind for now, answering questions regarding the nature of the jobs promised; although Aganga’s fun seekers give the impression that all the jobs will be in agriculture or agro-allied industries. Nigerians simply want to know if you are operating from the same blue-print as the Minister of Trade or you have your own ideas.

While you are getting busy finding answers to the questions above, let me draw your attention to the statement above made by Keynes at the end of his magnum opus. Although written 75 years ago, the observation is as relevant today as when it was written in 1936.

In fact, it has become more relevant in the modern global economy – Nigeria included. At the moment, over 200 million are looking for jobs all across the world – perhaps about 12 million of the job seekers are in Nigeria alone.

Part of the reason, as you must have known, as World Bank Managing Director, is the fact that growth, estimated at 7% per annum in Nigeria is not creating jobs and the benefits of growth are not being shared broadly. Now as in the period before the Second World War, when Keynes pointed to the destabilizing impact of “arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes”, Nigerian politicians in all the political parties governing at the federal and state levels have institutionalized income inequality and narrowed access to employment.

Take a look at the high profile selections made before the just concluded elections and you will notice the increasing strangle hold on political positions by a few families or cabal in virtually every state. Kwara might as well be called Saraki State. But, what was once limited to one state is now becoming national.

In Plateau, the governor appoints his son as Special Adviser; “arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes” is not better illustrated than that. To some extent the same is true of states under “progressive” governors. Dr Okonjo-Iweala is surely familiar with the broad outlines of Keynes theory which guided economic policy from the late 1930s until the conservative elements staged a come-back which has resulted in the current global recession. Certainly, she must ask herself where to start redressing the inequitable distribution of wealth in a country where legislators earn over 100 times the take home pay of a professor.

Previously, a country growing at 7% would have been churning out jobs at a rate that will almost guarantee full employment; if not labour shortage – given population growth rate of 2.85%. Instead, of scramble for workers, such as we experienced during the Gowon administration in the 1970s, people are still being laid off; factories are closing.

In addition to all these, the Finance Minister came the first time when the international price of crude oil was heading for the roof. Given imminent global recession on account of economic crisis in the US and Europe, she might have arrived just in time for the price of crude to head for the basement.

She needs all the luck in the world to avoid becoming the scapegoat for what might follow.

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