Book Review — Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Two days ago, I finished Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines. Ngozi was Nigeria’s former finance minister and currently the lead candidate for the Director-General position at the World Trade Organization. The book was published in 2018.
The book offers an interesting insider account of what it means to work as a senior official in the Nigerian government. This exposé details her time during the Goodluck Jonathan era which was from 2011 to 2015. During this period, she was not just the Finance Minister but also held a special position as the Coordinating Minister of the Economy (CME) — the first of its kind in the country.
The first thing that hits you in this book is the level of impunity in the Nigerian government. It just seems to me that there are forces whose life mission is to ensure that Nigeria is kept in perpetual underdevelopment. You will see as I go on.
The book starts with the story of the kidnapping of the author’s mother. Her mother was kidnapped and held for five days by people she suspected to have been sent by oil marketers whom she admits she had a big fallout with and those involved in the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Program (SURE-P) who (wrongly) felt she was responsible for their delayed payments. On the sixth day, for more than two hours, this eighty-three-year-old grandmother ran, jogged and walked in the forest to safety. At a point, she had to slide down an incline to a major highway. By the time she got to the bottom, she was covered with scrapes, bruises, mud, leaves, and grass. She said that she must have looked like the mad men and women that one often sees in Nigeria wandering by the roadside or muttering to themselves in the market square.
The rest of the book dealt with how the author got herself into this position. But even before she accepted the ministerial position from President Jonathan, she was visited by Donald Duke, a former state governor, who said he carried a message from a group of concerned Nigerians whose advice was that she should turn down the offer. Why? she asked. His response was that her acceptance would “give Jonathan and his government credibility” and he did not deserve that. This to me shows that some of Nigerian elites do not care if the country burns to the ground if they don’t have their way.
She also noted her challenges with the media especially Sahara Reporters. She referred to a research which shows that, of forty-one articles that Sahara Reporters published about her in twenty-five months, only one was positive. Her conclusion is that she could not be this bad and that there must be bias against her.
While this may be true, she was also quick to admit that if there was one way the government she was a part of failed, it’s in the area of communication. A case in point was the sudden subsidy removal of 2011 which led to widespread protests in several cities in Nigeria with particularly well-organized large turnouts in the opposition stronghold of Lagos. As nationwide protests engulfed the country, no one in government came out to defend the government or explained the basis for the ill-timed policy action.
And that leads me to how much Jonathan was played. While Okonjo-Iweala and her team had called for patience and strategic phasing out of the petroleum subsidy, it was the governors who had urged the President not to delay any longer but to announce the subsidy phase-out at the beginning of the year. It was incredible that none of the governors came to the rescue when the policy roiled the nation. And of course, this would not be the last time serious lack of communication happened in the administration.
It happened with Sanusi Lamido. The story of how his leaked letter of the missing $50 billion caused pandemonium in the country is quite interesting. If Iweala’s narration of his unprofessional conduct is to be believed, then he deserved to be removed as the CBN governor. It’s even more interesting that a while before Sanusi raised the alarm of the missing funds, Sanusi was being investigated for “financial recklessness” ostensibly linked to the Central Bank of Nigeria’s problems with the Financial Reporting Council. But again, lack of communication made the country feel like Sanusi became a martyr for looking out for the country.
#DoYouKnow that in 1978, under Minister Muhammadu Buhari of the Petroleum Ministry, there was a missing $3.5 billion not remitted by NNPC to the treasury? Yeah, 1978!
NNPC is a basket case. The amount of public funds unaccounted for in that agency is mind-boggling. Instead of serving the country, it looks like the country is serving NNPC. A situation where its Group Managing Director challenged the right of the Finance Minister’s right to ask for information on production volumes and sales of crude oil or even to try to hold NNPC accountable to deliver the needed volume of funding is one that causes one to shudder.
#DoYouKnow When Nuhu Ribadu, the first Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, needed to leave Nigeria in 2009, the government of Norway, the Center for Global Development (CGD), and the World Bank financed an eighteen-month fellowship for him at CGD.
There is also the matter of the National Assembly which to me is the most interesting chapter in the book. The long and short of the chapter is that Nigerian legislators exist to budget as much money as possible to themselves. The budget process is one which every Nigerian should read about. Perhaps it will cause us to hold them more accountable. There is a reason they earn one of the highest monetary benefits in the world. Our budget system is flawed.
And the governors. It’s disheartening to see that people like Oshiomhole, Amaechi and Fashola whose decisions to stop the country from savings leading to untold hardship to Nigerians were and are being rewarded with ministerial and high level political appointments. These people, through their actions, literally plunged the country into a needless recession. And the way Nigerian states borrow recklessly is another alarming part of the book. Oh, Lagos state!
She took a swipe at Muhammadu Buhari as well. He knew that Nigeria has little savings yet did not appoint ministers for six months. When he appointed them, he embarked on disjointed monetary and exchange-rate policies which damaged investor confidence and capital flight. Flat out wrong economic policies led to the first economic contraction for two decades in Nigeria.
The different scams perpetuated by those in the civil service is also a highlight. Look at the judgement scam. It typically arises when a government ministry, department, or agency defaults on a contract and is sued by the
contractor or service provider, who often wins the case and receives
the original disputed amount owed by government plus interest and
a fine. The gist is that civil servants gang up with contractors for their agencies to be sued. Because they are obviously in the wrong, the judge will rule in the contractor’s favor. The contractors get paid many millions and the ‘loot’ is shared with the civil servants. And you know it’s not the agencies that pay these fines but the federal government from taxpayer’s money. She said these judgement debts increased from ₦8 billion in 2006 to ₦80 billion in 2012. Such corruption.
There is also Apapa port where NPA is making $6 million a year and the federal government knows not that such fees even exist.
What gets me the most in this book is the lack of institutional building at all levels. There are systems like the IPPIS, GIFMIS and TSA, sure, under development as far back as the Obasanjo administration (for emphasis, the Buhari administration did not come up with these systems), but their implementation is not across board.
As much as the author tried to protect the person of Goodluck Jonathan it’s painfully obvious that while a courteous and liberal president (his unprecedented peaceful handover of power to the opposition is to be acknowledged), he did not punish wrongdoings. This led to a feeling of impunity on the part of vested interests who felt they could get away with corrupt acts. People got away with ‘murder’. No system in place to get rid of corruption. My heart sank when Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala discussed Nigeria’s economy with Jonathan and he kept saying he did not know economics. Anyone who does not know economics should not be in charge of the economy of any state or nation. The knowledge of how the economy works should be the minimum.
This lack of systems is even worse at the state level. None of the three systems above exist at the state level. Considering state and local governments constitutionally control 48 percent of all national revenues, that’s a lot of money unaccounted for.
No system to integrate women in politics too. A paltry 5% representation at the national assembly for a population made up of 50% women is simply unacceptable.
A major drawback about the book is that she withheld so many names of actors who played negative roles in the book. If she’s scared of lawsuits, why bother about the book at all? A good example was a senior presidential adviser who made her access to the Presidential Villa difficult during the visit of Christine Lagarde, current President of the European Central Bank, who was then at the IMF. The author didn’t mention the name of this person.
The book also felt as if all the decisions made under her at the Ministry of Finance turned out well. It begs the question, were there any decision by her in four years that didn’t go as intended? In that wise, it could read as a one-sided account.
Overall, this is a captivating book that’s well written and easy to read. It is guaranteed to make you sad about the state of the country, considering the situations described have become worse under the Buhari government.