Being conclusion of an interview with former Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Continued from yesterday
Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Washington DC
Supporting someone who can’t go to school or who can’t get proper healthcare, do that that is also valid. But if you cannot do any of that and you want to help from the Diaspora, my suggestion to you is perhaps select an area of interest where you can contribute something that will change the way things are being done, lend your voice and when it comes to the time to vote, go home, register and vote.
The second government you served was criticized for presiding over corruption and if you situate that against a portion of your book where governor Duke coming to meet you say, ‘serving that government gave it some credibility.’ How did you find that moral compass to serve?
I think people should go and read a book called ‘This Present Darkness’, it is a very dark book unfortunately and it Chronicles the history of Nigeria with corruption crime over many years. And unfortunately, almost every administration in the country has been accused of corruption, during the time they were in government, after the time they were in government. It’s been happening for years so it is nothing new that’s why the issue of how are we going to get rid of this, how are going to fight will always arise. Should we just keep having this or are some people going to put their neck on the line and say we are going to fight this. So under both presidents, this existed and they both had different styles. So it is not anything new but on the ground, some of the things we used to fight corruption are what I said after that regime and the following one were not continued and there was a need to try and come back and finish off that work.
I think when we were trying to get debt relief and we initiated the reforms during the Obasanjo administration, there were more visibility and more communication about the need to fight corruption. That was there and people at least knew that there was a signal about the fact that this was not acceptable and we were going to fight it.
One of the things you will read in the book is that I thought that the second time I went back under Jonathan’s administration, we didn’t communicate well enough. Nobody even knew that we were doing anything about it and that was a weakness. So if you can’t even talk about what we were doing, there was so many criticisms and attacks every day and we were drowning under that, we were not able to raise our voices and say by the way we are doing something about it, that is very practical to also fight against corruption. It was a weakness and I do admit that in this book. I think we should have been able to articulate more and say what was happening. And you will see that throughout the book not just in terms of the fight but in terms of the money saved.
I talked about a total of $9 billion saved, part of it was money averted when people came with a scam to get government guarantees in other to borrow. President Jonathan called me and we were able to meet with those people and after months of meeting, we were able to block that particular thing. You will read in the book that the same people went to Mozambique and they were able to persuade the minister of finance to sign and the government to take that loan and Mozambique is suffering from these loans till today. I’m talking about the Ematum tuna scandal. So I am not talking in the air, it is the same people. What if we had done that, that would have been $2 billion around our neck now. But we never talked about these things at the time.
In the fight against corruption you worked under two different presidents can you describe who among them gave you the greatest support in the reforms?
On the reforms, one of the things I am proud about is that some of the reforms that we started, the ones that really matter to me, those systems GIFSM, IPPIS, TSA are in place till today. We got them 75 percent complete, there were not 100 percent complete by the time I left still but it was now in an irreversible situation. And the IMF in fact visited and their report commended us for getting that far because the resistance was very grave. And the present government is building on it I think after an initial period when it wasn’t very clear which direction, they decided to use these systems and built on them and so that is one good signal.
On the question of superintending over corruption, yes many people asked the question, why you didn’t resign. These are very good questions and I tackled them in the book. I say this is a dilemma. I could easily have stayed, that is the easy answer. Don’t you ask yourself? Why was I going, why will I put myself through what I went through. It is so easy to do what you said, to let go. But when I talked to many people they are not willing to put themselves on the line or what happened to my family to put my family in danger. I didn’t know at the time that I was putting my family in danger obviously, I wouldn’t have consciously done that but I knew I was going to suffer some consequences.
But I went because it begins with you. If all of us say we are not going to do anything about it, I think there are times when resigning sends the correct signal or not going but there are times when it doesn’t work, you just have to go there and fight and do what you can. And then the efforts to prevent me from coming at all, the thing wasn’t meant to say anything other than just to set the context for the story when I talked about Donald Duke. He was conveying a message to me from people including people who said they were my friends telling me not to come. But when I asked why and you will see it in the book, they said so as not to give the government credibility. My feeling was that at some stage, you need to take a stand. And once I got there I actually saw that people were actively trying to get me to go and that is why I didn’t resign.
How do you see the judiciary in Nigeria supporting the efforts that people like have you made over the years? We don’t seem to believe that the judiciary is making the right contribution to fighting corruption. What else needs to be done?
We really need a strong judiciary there is absolutely no doubt about it. With strong and independent, well-resourced judiciary we are on our way. We have some independent institutions to safeguard the judiciary but are they strong enough? The answer I’m sure the members of the judiciary themselves will tell you is, no. So that is one of the tasks that we have. And like you said, there is some urgency in building institutions in our country if we are to successfully fight corruption.
We need a whole new set of actions working together but above all, we need people who are willing. If everybody runs away and stays in their nice safe corner, what happens? That is what the people who are corrupt want you to do by the way. They want you to stay away, they want you to resign, they want you run off and leave them to their devices and that was what led to all the attacks.
I remember a time when the army said and is in the book, that the ministry of finance was withholding resources and therefore they were not able to fight Boko Haram and it was in the papers. People in my ministry panicked and said you have to do something because that is a really serious charge. And I had to go out to the media and give all the figures of all we had disbursed. So, other people, not just me suffered a lot. So we have to be willing. If you don’t have willing people who are ready to fight, then you can’t even have the strengthening of the institutions.
I want to thank my family, my husband, friends, colleagues, people international community who really stretch above and beyond to constantly send messages of support, saying we are here for you. And if you are going to be engaging in these kinds of work, you need that backing. So one of the things I am passionate about is trying to see if we can find a way to build a more solid support for those who are trying to fight.
What is your take on Jonathan’s decision to concede defeat in 2015 after the presidential contest?
I am giving him credit. He had already made up his mind. We were there trying to whisper to him and talk to him but the man had decided that this is what he wanted to do. So he is the only one that deserves credit and I said that very clearly in my book. When he went to go and call Buhari and tell him congratulations we were all sitting there we didn’t even know when he left. We were still trying to persuade him but he deserves the credit himself, he had decided that was the right thing to do so he deserves the credit, not me, not anyone else.
Are you not afraid that these people can come after you with all the revelations in this book?
The revelations? But I am telling the truth. I have already told the world that this book is going to lead to all kinds of attacks. The same people who were attacking me when I was in government, who attacked me after I left government, the world knows about it. That is why I said it is risky to write the book but it is also risky to keep quiet because that is all we all do. People keep quiet they never say what happens and that gives cover to all these corrupt people and they continue to do what they do and to perpetuate the same practices that are keeping Nigeria behind. So is high time we spoke up and I want people to know truly what happened to me and also I want the international community to look at the lessons for fighting corruptions, it is not that easy. It is easy for the international community to say go and fight corruption but not being aware of what it entails, the fact that vested interest is not going to give up easily. So yes, of course, I think it is risky but is out there.
You did give a reason why you went back the second and third time, will you be willing to back again if called upon to serve?
I served the country for seven years; I think I’m the longest-serving finance minister in the country. Other people now have a chance to serve, I am doing what I adore, I am having fun and my work is valued in the international community. That is what I was doing before but I went to Nigeria out of love and I want to send the signal to Nigerian young people that if they actually love the country, they can serve without being corrupt.
They are actually people who serve because they think it is a national honour and duty, I felt it is an honour for my country to ask for my service and I was duty bound to serve. And I have done that, so now I am doing other things so that other people can also serve. On the special fund for those fighting corruption, the international community needs to come together and put together resources to support people who may not be well known, who are fighting. And we heard some many examples from different countries of people who had to flee because they were been intimidated and attacked when they tried to block the diversion of the monies and the stealing of money. And if people don’t have that signal that they can go somewhere and be protected, they will be less willing to do what is right and to fight. So we need that and there is a movement and people are interested. (The Sun)