Cut Corruption. Pay Debt. Accept Kudos. Get Fired.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been one of the brightest hopes for Nigeria. A former World Bank vice-president, she left the Bank in 2003 to return to Nigeria and serve as Olusegun Obasanjo’s finance minister. This is far from an easy job in a country routinely ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world.

But Okonjo-Iweala made incredible progress quite rapidly. Under her leadership, Nigeria tripled foriegn currency reserves, slashed inflation in half and experienced GDP growth of 6% per year. She negotiated a deal in which Nigeria received $18 billion in debt cancellation from bilaterial Club of Paris creditors in exchange for $12 billion made in payments, repurposed from oil revenues, which have increased markedly due to the high global price of oil. Time Magazine honored her accomplishments, calling her a “hero” in 2004.

A largely sympathetic portrait in the Guardian makes it clear that the position was a complicated one for Okonjo-Iweala. Some ministers resented the large salary she earned – with money provided by the UN to encourage foriegn-trained experts to return to ministry jobs, Okonjo-Iweala received a salary of $240,000 a year, in contrast to the $6,000 other ministers received. And because reforming the Nigerian financial system requires attacking official corruption, her actions were often very unpopular with compatriots. As she told the Guardian, “When I became finance minister they called me Okonjo-Wahala – or Trouble Woman,” says the 51-year-old, with a throaty chuckle. “It means ‘I give you hell.’ ”

Her hell-raising aside, it came as a major shock when Obasanjo moved Okonjo-Iweala from the Finance Ministry to the post of Foreign Minister in late June. The President’s decision could be read as an attempt to sideline the fiery minister, or to honor her, making her the public face of Nigerian diplomacy. And she was left in charge of the country’s economic team, leaving foreign investors confident that Nigeria wouldn’t slide back into old ways of doing business.

But Obasanjo removed her as the head of the economic team earlier this week, and today, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala resigned from the Obasanjo government.

There’s surely going to be a lot of ink – and bits – spilled about this development in the next few days. Saharareporters is already on the case, reporting that Okonjo-Iweala “has been throughly demystified and ridiculed by the government who once accused her of orchestrating a story about a finacial scandal regarding payments to an offshore agency from her new ministry.”

I’ll be very interested to hear what Sokari Ekine has to say about the situation, as well as from Ike Okonta, who had an excellent, thoughful reflection on Dr. Onkojo-Iweala a year back. And check out a comic strip on Naijaland suggesting Dr. Onkojo-Iweala as a future presidential candidate…

By the way, if you’re curious about Dr. Dora Akunyili, namechecked in the cartoon, there’s an excellent profile on the BBC about the woman working to rid Nigeria of counterfit drugs.


Update – I traded email about this piece briefly with Sokari, who is on holiday and hopes to write about the situation when she returns. She pointed out that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s resignation wasn’t the only disturbing recent news from Nigeria: Mr. Bukhari Bello, who was the executive secretary of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, was sacked with little explanation in early July. It would be very disturbing if Obasanjo’s reaction to giving up his campaign for a third term would be to sideline powerful and effective critics from within the government.

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8 Responses to Cut Corruption. Pay Debt. Accept Kudos. Get Fired.

  1. Robbie Honerkamp says:

    I’ve been meaning to write about this, but I’m waiting to hear from a few friends in Lagos first. There are a lot of disturbing things going on in the leadup to next year’s elections (potential splits in the PDP, Funsho Williams murdered, Obasanjo and Abubakar not on speaking terms for the last year, etc), and I’m beginning to have some concerns for the future of the current democracy..

  2. Pingback: Kenyan Pundit » I’m back(ish)

  3. Remi says:

    Ethan, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala did not join in July 2005. More like 2000/2001.

  4. Pingback: Oluniyi David Ajao » Blog Archive » Blog round-up: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s Resignation as Minister

  5. Obi says:

    Allegations are that the individuals who complain about their $6000 a year base salary usually top it hop with a hefty income from bribes.
    The removal of this woman is a crying shame and in my view is a victory for corruption.
    If there are any claims that Nigeria is intent on battling corruption I believe it has been crushed by the removal of Ngozi.
    Definitely a case of on step forward and 2 steps back.

  6. Speaking of fraud by government officials:

    The Rivers State government was yesterday under tension with the arrest of the Speaker of the Rivers State house of assembly and PDP gubernatorial candidate Hon Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi. Hon Rotimi’s arrest came on the heels of the investigation into the ownership of Arik air and the misuse of N100 billion state funds. According to our sources Hon Rotimi Amaechi had been warned of the impending arrest but disregarded calls by his hench men to go into hiding. Our source in a telephone interview with NigerianInsider.com, said “Hon Rotimi said the rumours of his impending arrest was from Prince Uche Secondus, Rivers State PDP chairman and would not take it to heart”. Visit http://nigerianinsider.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=16&Itemid=2 for the full story

  7. Celso Macedo says:

    Fri’23’Jan’2009

    Attn: Mrs. Finance Ministry
    Much years ago the government collect me three fees to pay me of agricultural works, $45MUSD , and my payment debt of the government is of $135MUSD, more interest rate.

    WillI be paid some day

    atentivelly

    simorcema@yahoo.com

  8. Celso Macedo says:

    What kind of moderation is requested of a payment debt?

    I respect authorities but I say my complaint shortli, in few words

    respectfully

    simorcema@yahoo.com

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