Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has had a distinguished public career. Twice finance minister and economic tsar, as the coordinating minister of the economy in her last iteration, she has hands on experience of the country’s financials. That can’t be denied her. Recently, speaking on the economic crisis in Nigeria at George Washington University, Washington DC, she said the current economic crunch was down to a lack of political will to foster savings.
“We tried it in Nigeria, we put in an oil price based fiscal rule in 2004 and it worked very well. We saved $22 billion because the political will to do it was there. And when the 2008 /2009 crisis came, we were able to draw on those savings precisely to issue about a 5 percent of GDP fiscal stimulus to the economy and we never had to come to the bank or the fund.
This time around and this is the key now, you need not only need to have the instrument but you also need the political will. In my second time as a finance minister, from 2011 to 2015, we had the instrument, we had the means, we had done it before, but zero political will.So we were not able to save when we should have.
That is why you find that Nigeria is now in the situation it is in. Along with so many other countries.” Now, the way this has been reported, and has been latched on to, even by those who have made a career of destroying NOI’s record of service to her fatherland, creates the impression that there was a paralysis in the government headed by Goodluck Jonathan, or at least very little appetite in trying. Coming at a time, an especially absentee style of governance has taken over Abuja. Senior government officials, like the governor of Edo State, declaring a minister in the previous government of stealing USD6b , with a facetious rider that a senior US government official told him . Remember, Oshiomhole featured prominently on every photo-OP on the president’s trip to the US. Add to the manic churn of the APC rumour mill: USD 90 billion recovered from the former petroleum minister, USD 200 billion recovered and to be repatriated from the UAE, trillions of naira liberated by the Treasury Single Account.
If a quarter of these were true, even a-kite-in-the-sky president like Muhammad Buhari would not risk over fourteen hours of flight time for the sights of burgeoning China. Blaming the previous administration seemed to have run its course as poor management of the economy, most especially , a near-blindness to our diversity has robbed the government of popular support. This is the fallow land NOI’s comments, inadvertently or not , are coming to water. The “inability” of the previous administration to save was not for want to trying.
As we shall see, the previous administration did save. What can’t be argued against is that we could do with much more savings. As it were, the gall in NOI’s comments, is what is left unsaid. A little context: NOI, as was President Jonathan, were stalwarts of savings. But they were up against governors who understood and exploited our weak revenue laws and constitutional fuzziness . Bukola Saraki, Rotimi Amaechi and Babatunde Fashola are the trinity of earn and spend governors, who twice took the federal government to court on the Excess Crude Account. By some wonderful twist of fate , they are all leading lights of the current ideas-challenged APC government .
What kind of political will could have stopped them except an amendment of the constitution, which was an impossible feat given the death-like grip, governors wield over the state houses of assembly or a resort to constitutional breaches that made the federal government a present danger to our democracy in the Obasanjo years. President Jonathan created the Sovereign Wealth Fund. First of its kind in Nigeria. Thanks to NOI herself, Segun Aganga, Adesina Akinwunmi and the support of the Nigerian people. Even here, part of the ECA had to go just to stave off a constitutional challenge.
For any money to be saved in the nation’s financial architecture, it has to get into the ECA first. But this process was ambushed in the legislature by the Aminu Tambuwal (another APC peacock) led House of Representatives with the unwarranted increase in the benchmark whenever it had to deal with the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) or even the budget once it got to the floor of the National Assembly. Raising the benchmark invariably vitiates the savings anticipated and thus less money in the ECA.
The major drain on the ECA through the Jonathan years was the subsidy payments. NOI suffered more than her fair share of name calling when the Jonathan’s administration moved to remove the fuel subsidy. The removal can’t by any stretch be seen as a lack of political will. Hence, it’s rather bewildering that she would lay the depletion of the ECA on the doorstep of Jonathan.
Indeed, were memories not that short, many would recall that the sponsorship for the Ojota rallies against the removal of the subsidy regime was from the coffers of the Lagos State government. And just last year, the Buhari government disbursed two tranches of funds. First , was dividends from the NLNG which the Jonathan government had saved and the second, bailouts to near-bankrupt states Needless to state that all that happened, once you excuse certain acts of larceny that could be pinned down to some individuals, are to the glory of all that served the government. Collective glory, collective responsibility.