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Sonala Olumhense: Dear Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala


Sonala Olumhense: Dear Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala

by Sonala Olumhense

Dear Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala,

I have often disagreed with your work in the government. There are two principal reasons for this.

The first is that you serve as the arrowhead of a change scheme known as President Goodluck Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda, which I hold to be deceptive and inoperable.

I do not believe that the kind of fundamental change your government claims to lead can succeed because it does not enjoy the ownership of the people as it is not set in the credibility of personal example.  A leadership that cannot demonstrate it understands the power of sacrifice and character leads only itself.

For me, your failure to attack this issue of credibility has, despite your international profile, made you a part of the untrusted. The Transformation Agenda’s endless preachment is widely received as being pompous and deceptive because of the evidence of duplicity Nigerians see around them.

The second reason behind my doubt of you is the history question.  You were a critical part of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s widely-celebrated National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) 10 years ago.

That reform scheme promised to be the last economic reform Nigeria would ever need, but in less than one year, it collapsed on its head. The resources that went into NEEDS, including assistance received from foreign friends, disappeared.

Some of those resources include over $2.5 billion recovered of the Sani Abacha loot. Your successor in Finance, Nenadi Usman, who is now a Senator and who I am sure you run into in the privileged corridors of Abuja, told Nigeria that the funds were given to five Ministries for certain projects. The funds—$2.5 billion—and the so-called “projects” vanished.  Those were just the Abacha funds.

I know President Obasanjo later moved you from Finance to Foreign Affairs, following which you made the right decision to leave the government and return to Washington, DC. But you then made the other, even more courageous decision to return to serve in the government of Mr. Jonathan, accepting overall responsibility for the economy.

I found it difficult to reconcile your silence on NEEDS with the suggestion that it is possible to improve Nigeria, indeed transform her, without reference to the NEEDS story.

Having provided that background, I write to commend you upon your recent speech at TEDx Euston in London in which you focused on election campaign finance in Africa. You declared that unless a legitimate means is found for funding election campaigns, politicians would continue to seek funds from such sources as business people, whom they would then be in dangerous private debt with grave public consequences.

“If we don’t solve this problem, people will continue to find unorthodox means of financing their elections, of financing the implantation of democracy. And this very means may be the root of some of the corruption we do not want, which may totally affect the way we do business.”

“I want us to start a conversation: what if we decide that we want a certain percentage of each of our countries’ revenue to be dedicated to (election campaign finance) and that people need not run around to look for means and stress themselves to finance political parties or election campaigns, but that it is a legitimate public good that we have said we want in each country we want democracy?”

In principle, every country, which professes a democracy such as ours, ought to be concerned about this question; you are to be celebrated for raising it for the consumption of African countries.

As for me, however, the issue is not Africa, it is Nigeria. If Nigeria gets it right, Africa will get it right, and Nigerian government officials will once again enjoy the moral right to preach abroad about issues such as this.

But the problem for a Nigerian is not Africa, it is Nigeria. This is why I am always disturbed when a prominent Nigerian such as you would say these things elsewhere, but choose to remain silent within our shores.

The election campaign debacle can be no worse than it is in Nigeria, and in “Beyond, And Beneath, N65,” an article I published in January 2012 following that month’s civil protests, I advocated a new Campaign Finance Law.  

The trouble is that campaign finance is only one symptom of a broader disease. That ailment, of which your government is regrettably a key part, Madam Minister, is the deep corruption that is eating Nigeria alive. The Transformation Agenda is a ruse because it is planted in the very soil of corruption.

Apparently, that was not the plan. The month before you assumed duty, in July 2011, the Secretary to the Government, Mr. Anyim Pius Anyim, told the American ambassador in a public event that the Transformation Agenda would engender institutional changes that would arrest corruption.

Similarly, Dr. Shamsudeen Usman, the former Minister of National Planning, said in October 2011 that the Transformation Agenda would be substantially different, as it would address the corruption question as a platform.

“We have to emphasize the rule of law, judicial system and the policing system,” he told a press conference. “When you know that there is a 99 percent chance you would be caught when you steal and 100 percent chance that you would go to jail, you won’t steal.”

That was why I quickly gobbled up the document as soon as I found it, only to find that on corruption, it is eloquent only in its silence. Your government avoided this combat.

And so we wind up with a conundrum where we claim to be fighting corruption but cannot find the courage. It is called hypocrisy. We claim transparency, but some of the most powerful officials of the current government number among those alleged to be the most corrupt.

An allegation, of course, is not guilt. But there is no process in the current government to sift the innocent from the guilty.  The government famously announced, in 2012, that it would mark its own scorecard. The famously guilty are famously pardoned. The president powerfully swore he would not publicly declare his assets.

In other words, when you say that campaign finance is an issue and leads to corruption, you speak only half of the sentence. The full story is that the social contract, the relationship between the electorate and the elected, has broken down in Nigeria. The government is not responsible to the people.

This explains one of the problems on your desk: an embarrassing recurrent expenditure profile that makes it impossible to fund capital projects. Everyone the world over knows that that is because our public officials see in office not a chance to serve, but an opportunity to leap from comfortable to wealthy.

By all means, Madam Minister, let us discuss campaign finance. But we cannot discuss it outside a responsible electoral law. Most of all, to pretend that such a discussion can be undertaken in the same abstraction in which the Transformation Agenda tries to distance itself from a rigorous anti-corruption campaign is a little disingenuous.

Hopefully, you understand the concept of credibility. A credible government must focus on demonstrable service, not propaganda. Your government is not credible because it cannot distance itself from the lootocracy.

Nigeria has a lot to offer Africa and the world. If you want to be a genuine contributor to that process, I suggest that you shed your tears publicly in Nigeria while there is yet time.

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Sonala Olumhense/Guardian

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