13 May 2013 – “Privatisation does not always work in Nigeria. However, our government is not competent to run the energy sector. We tried it for 40 years!” With statements such as these, Nigeria’s coordinating minister for the economy and minister of finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, had a packed audience hanging onto her every word at the launch of her book, “Reforming The Unreformable”, in Cape Town in May 2013.
She was also accompanying the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, on a state visit to South Africa and to the World Economic Forum (WEC), also taking place in the South African mother city. Nigeria is the next WEF host country.
A former managing director of the World Bank, Okonjo-Iweala was invited back to her home country in 2003 by then president Olusegun Obasanjo to set in motion sweeping economic reforms in Nigeria. The book tells the story of how a dedicated team of reformers set out to fix a series of broken institutions and in the process repositioned Nigeria’s economy for long-term growth.
“There seemed to be pessimism in the air. I wrote this book to show the often very pessimistic, cynical Nigerians that it can be done. What Nigeria does matters.” She put together a team for the task. “You cannot do it alone. This is a story about a team that delivered and was led by a president who had a mission.” She says it also accepted advice from Brazil because that country had gone through its own economic reforms.
The team started out by studying the Nigerian economy since the 70s and investigated the erratic pattern of seesawing gross domestic products (GDPs) – due to the economy’s dependence on the volatile oil industry. “For decades before we had run the country like this”, Okonjo-Iweala says. By putting in place an oil-based fiscal rule, the country managed to develop a stable macro-economy.
At the beginning of her appointment to president Obasanjo’s cabinet, he also sent her a letter with a very specific instruction to make Nigeria debt-free. By 2006, the former World Bank MD had succeeded in striking a deal with the Paris Club for the relief of Nigeria’s debt estimated at US$30 billion. The fact that several crucial officials in the various finance departments of the Paris Club countries were former World Bank colleagues was a great help to land this agreement says Okonjo-Iweala. “When I made my pitch, they said: this woman makes sense, we know her.”
The country managed to make enough reforms to create the credibility it needed to make the Paris Club deal and got a Standards & Poor rating for the first time. She admits that the process of economic reform has not always been successful in all spheres of the Nigerian economy. “We tried different mechanisms. Some worked, others not. We concessioned ports with mixed results. We tried the civil service and came up short. The liberalisation of the telecom sector was a big success.” The privatisation of the country’s energy sector is currently underway.
Furthermore, during 2003 − 2006, the team’s work was very unpopular and it was under constant attack. “It was not easy. All along the way were vested interests and we suffered constant attacks but we persisted and made progress.” She says the book is “above all a book about optimism. Optimism about my country. It contains lessons about managing reform.”
Asked if being a woman is or ever has been a hindrance in her career she replied: “Is my gender a problem? Maybe for some people. I rather like being a woman. Luckily we have a president who is genuinely pro-woman.”