by Stanley Azuakola
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the honourable minister of finance, is widely seen as the technocrat, the World Bank woman, who lives high above the miasma of partisanship and Nigerian politics. However, when it suits her purpose, she has also shown time and time again that she could be the ultimate politician throwing jabs, employing propaganda and sticking out her tongue like the rest of them.
Wednesday, she had an opportunity to be both the technocrat and the politician all at once when she submitted responses to the 50 questions posed to her by the House Committee on Finance. And she grabbed it.
For starters, the response was 102 pages long, as if telling the House members notorious for their slipshod approach to work, “You asked for it, now go read it!”
But more than that, the response which was very detailed, also contained jabs and hits for the lawmakers with whom she famously had a clash in December when she appeared before the House Committee on Finance.
She told them that some of the questions they asked were already in the public space because she had adequately answered them at various fora, including meetings and open hearings organised by the House committee. She wondered why they were repeated again but assured them that to prove her high regard for the national assembly, she chose to give the detailed response in spite of all.
Okonjo-Iweala also said that the committee repeated a lot of questions even among the 50 it gave to her. In a painful jab she claimed that some of the questions raised by them were contradictory. Then she delivered this punchline:
“It is therefore unclear if the House committee has a coherent policy agenda for our nation’s development, or whether these questions are simply meant to stir confusion and detract us from the Transformation Agenda of the current administration.”
Okonjo-Iweala also accused the committee of personalising most of the questions by focusing on her instead of focusing on the economy, saying, “This is disappointing and trivialises important discussions needed for Nigeria’s development. In our responses, we choose to do otherwise. We focus instead on policy issues and provide empirical data to support our discussions where necessary.
“We believe such protracted exchanges are a distraction to the executive and ultimately a disservice to Nigerians. We would recommend more measured and civil exchanges in the future, which are informative for Nigerians and also enable the executive to focus on its goal of implementing programmes and projects across our nation.”
In all, the minister gave extensive details including tables and graphs, and answers to the committee’s well-publicised questions. Her response would no doubt elicit responses from the committee members as well as analysts and commentators in the coming days.
Already, the document has been delivered to each of the members of the finance committee.
According to Thisday:
In her response, Okonjo-Iweala stressed that in spite of the many challenges which government had acknowledged, the Nigerian economy is showing real and measurable progress in many areas, adding, “This can be seen in the fact that more jobs are being created; roads, rail and other infrastructure are being improved; the country is saving for the future and planning better for the present.”
According to her, “The Jonathan administration, contrary to the impression given by some critics, is making an impact in the areas that, according to credible opinion polls, Nigerians are most passionate about.
“For instance, on job creation which is a central focus of the administration, a total of 1.6 million jobs were created last year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) of which 250,000 were seasonal jobs created in dry season farming in 10 northern states.
“In manufacturing, the Onne Oil and Gas Free zone created an estimated 30,000 direct and indirect jobs. The government special intervention programme YouWin supported young entrepreneurs, creating over 18,000 jobs. The SURE-P Community Services programme has also created 120,000 job opportunities.”
The statement added that Okonjo-Iweala also pointed to the improvement in federal highways, which she said had been confirmed by many Nigerians who travelled during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
“Key highways which have witnessed significant progress include Kano-Maiduguri Road, the Abuja-Lokoja Road, the Apapa-Oshodi Road, the Onitsha-Enugu-Port-Harcourt Road and the Benin-Ore-Shagamu Road. Preliminary work has commenced on Lagos-Ibadan road and the Second Niger Bridge.
“The Railway Modernization Programme involving the construction of standard gauge lines is underway. The 1,124 km Western line linking Lagos and Kano is now functional, while work on the Eastern line linking Port Harcourt to Maiduguri is about 36 per cent complete.
“The Abuja-Kaduna Standard Gauge line has attained 68 per cent completion, and the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri Line which is presently 77 per cent completed, will be completed next year.
“The annual passenger traffic on our railways has increased steadily, rising from 1 million in 2011 to 5 million in 2013,” the minister’s spokesman said.
One of the issues Okonjo-Iweala dealt with was the charge made by the Chairman of the Finance Committee, Hon. Abdulmumin Jubrin, in the media that the country is racking up debts under her watch as finance minister. On this issue, the statement said Okonjo-Iweala dismissed the allegation, stating there was no substance to the charge.
“In fact, the opposite is true. Right from her Senate confirmation hearing in 2011, the minister had identified rising debt as a major challenge, which the country needs to confront.
“Under the leadership of President Jonathan and working with the Debt Management Office and the Budget Office of the Federation, the minister followed through with a robust approach which includes progressive reduction of borrowing, quick settlement of due debts and the retirement of N75 billion of maturing bonds via a Sinking Fund dedicated to paying off substantial bonds.
“These measures have produced clear results as shown in the reduction of borrowing from N852 billion in 2011 to N571.9 billion this year,” the minister was said to have explained in her document to the House committee.