By Tobi Soniyi
A new book written by a former Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has revealed insider details that will impact Nigeria’s political economy for a very long time.
According to the book titled, ‘Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines,’ which is meant to contribute to the global understanding of the challenges that reformers face when fighting corruption in developing countries, former President Goodluck Jonathan’s concession in the 2015 elections to President Muhammadu Buhari was a decision he reached on his own with little or no prodding from outside forces.
In the book, which went public last week to readers who had pre-ordered it, Okonjo-Iweala detailed what happened on that fateful day when unknown to all present at the presidential residence in Aso Villa on March 31, 2015, the then president had already spoken to his rival in the presidential election, Buhari, and conceded while various high level government officials and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) bigwigs were discussing whether or not he should concede.
Okonjo-Iweala revealed that with the room full of people giving conflicting advice, she leaned towards the president, who was seated by her, to impress it upon him the importance of conceding before the results were completely collated and announced, and that he listened to her whispered words and then spoke loudly in response to the hearing of everyone in the room, “It is done. A few minutes ago, I called to congratulate President-elect Buhari.”
The former finance minister’s accounts are consistent with the recollections of her then colleague, Osita Chidoka, who was Minister of Aviation.
In her book, the former finance minister also recalled the support she got from Jonathan over her refusal to pay spurious subsidy claims and bogus judgment debts to oil marketers and other individuals respectively.
While admitting that certain high level persons were convicted, the book expresses frustration that not more corrupt people were convicted during the Jonathan administration even while acknowledging that this may have been due largely to the slow pace of the Nigerian judiciary.
The much-awaited book, which the minister describes as “a personal account of an important aspect of my work in government – fighting corruption” renders the moving and insightful tale of her experiences while serving in the Jonathan government.
The former minister states in her book that she was inspired to write the book in order to make sense for herself and others who have asked to know what was behind the attacks she suffered after leaving office, to highlight the efforts made by the Jonathan administration to fight corruption based on her personal experience, and to “shed light on the perils, pitfalls, and successes of confronting corruption”.
According to Okonjo-Iweala, the book “provides lessons for those seeking to stop corruption and enshrine transparency and good governance in their work” especially finance ministers “who often do a risky jobs and rarely speak out, saying no to colleagues, cabinet members, civil servants, politicians – and even their bosses, the president or prime minister”.
Okonjo-Iweala believes that as risky as it was to serve and fight corruption, in spite of the dangers and difficulties, “it was worth it because institutions, systems, and processes that can endure were built for Nigeria, and substantial monies saved”.
Okonjo-Iweala goes on to state that the vast majority of Nigerians are honest, hardworking people that just want the government to provide basic services, and then get out of their way so that they can take care of themselves. “These people deserve strong institutions that can protect them from corruption.”
She said in the book: “For me, it was also an issue of personal responsibility. I believe that the fight against corruption must start with individuals who choose to take responsibility.
“Years of development experience have shown me that regardless of the instruments, such as incentives and disincentives, that are available to reformers, corruption cannot be fought successfully from the outside or by outsiders. It must be by ‘insiders and from the inside’.”
The former minister goes on to narrate some of the personal acts of intimidation that she was subjected to because of her insistence on implementing reforms and insisting that the right things should be done. One of the most direct examples was the dramatic and traumatic kidnap of her eighty-three-year-old mother in broad daylight at the country home in Ogwashi-Ukwu.
“They asked my brother to tell me to announce on national television and radio that I was resigning from my job as finance minister and leaving the country,” she revealed when the kidnappers eventually made contact.
The reason behind the kidnap was that, with the support of Jonathan, she had convened a taskforce that audited fiscal accounts and detected fraudulent claims for oil subsidy payments which she refused to pay.
The Technical Committee led by Mr. Aigboje Aig-Imoukuede, Managing Director of Access Bank, to verify and reconcile the N1.3 trillion ($8.4 billion) subsidy claims by oil marketers for 2011 revealed “ghost vessels” that never supplied any products, lack of shipping documents or evidence of payments for the products in foreign exchange. It found that N382 billion was fraudulent and should be recovered from the 107 oil marketing companies.
Upon release, her mother reported that the kidnappers gave two reasons for the kidnap: “Your daughter refused to pay oil marketers, and she did not pay SURE-P money.”
The second instance was the plan by some oil importers and marketers to render her paralysed and in a wheelchair. The minister revealed how a few months after the release of her mother, she got a tip of a meeting where a plan to “inflict maximum physical damage short of killing her” because she was withholding subsidy payments.
In her capacity as Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, and based on the hard work of economic team members and various ministry of finance officials who worked with her, Okonjo-Iweala led and coordinated initiatives that saved the country about $2.5 billion from corruption and fraudulent transactions including blocking of payment for fraudulent claims by oil marketers, $1.5 billion from expunging ghost workers and pensions and refusing to pay phony judgment debts and $5 billion by refusing to guarantee proposed loans by international scammers and refusal to accept dubious grants. Collectively, according to her, the efforts saved the country over $9 billion.
The former minister, in her book, also revealed how Atedo Peterside, then Chairman of Stanbic-IBTC, relayed the request for her to work for the Jonathan administration, the “friendly” advice of Donald Duke, the former governor of Cross Rivers State, that she should refuse and the ensuing media attacks on her reputation by Sahara Reporters when it became apparent that she was giving the offer serious consideration.
She narrated that she was reluctant at first but was moved to accept the president’s offer to come back because of the following reasons. One, President Jonathan’s patriotic and emotional pitch to her that during one of her telephone conversations: “I am not asking you to come and work for Jonathan. This is not about Jonathan. It is about helping your country.”
Two, her father, a patriotic Nigerian and believer in the country was in support, stating that it was her chance to further use her expertise to help improve the economy and the lives of less fortunate Nigerians. The third reason was the possibility of completing the work of building “institutions, systems, and processes to stem revenue leakages from the budget” which had slowed down considerably after she resigned under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration.
The initiatives included the Government Integrated Financial Management System (GIFMIS), the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Management Information System (IPPIS), and the Treasury Single Account (TSA). When she eventually made up her mind, she was upfront on asking that the president create an economic team to support the reforms and also grant her regular access to him to discuss important issues.
Okonjo-Iweala also revealed in the book the frosty relationship that existed between her and officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The hostility was largely because of the lack of transparency in the operations of NNPC and the Ministry of Petroleum Resources – a problem that for long bedevilled the country. At the heart of this were the discrepancies in revenue numbers.
She wrote: “In 2012, in addition to the serious issues of the oil subsidy fraud, tensions began to rise in FAAC meetings over the lower-than-projected disbursements of oil revenues to the Federation accounts.”
She stated that investigations by the finance ministry revealed an average shortfall of N160 billion per annum, which according to NNPC’s explanations was due to oil theft and pipeline vandalism. She revealed that her attempts to get accountability for the development put her at crossroads with NNPC officials.
She described “trying to bring transparency and accountability to this sector” as “probably one of the most stressful and dangerous tasks of my job as finance minister!”
Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines, is billed to be released by MIT University Press on April 20, 2018 and is already widely anticipated in global leadership and financial circles with former British Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, and billionaire businessman and transparency and governance guru Mo Ibrahim endorsing the book.