In this special interview session, on the occasion of the event preceeding the signing of her book, Former Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, ‘Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines’ held at the Politics and Prose, Washington DC, reveals what she went through trying to fight corruption as a minister.
WHAT PROMPTED YOU WRITING THE BOOK?
When I set out to write, I knew I was going to write a book because I wanted to write a sequel to my first book. You may not have seen it, it is also from MIT Press called ‘Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria’. It captures public policy lessons from the first time that I was in government as finance minister and all the various reforms that were done with the economic team that I worked with under President Obasanjo at the time. It talks about our efforts to get debt relief etc but focused a lot on the macro economic reforms.
I thought after a second time in office I will be writing a volume two which will focus on reforms in the real sector – agriculture, telecommunications, and power. What exactly were the reforms we did in those sectors and what were the successes and failures. So, I actually set out to write volume two but when I sat down, what came out from my laptop was different. I found myself putting down the story of what happened to my mother. And that meant that somewhere deep inside … and as I was doing it I was very emotional, very upset and I realised how upset I was at what had happened and in many senses still I am.
So, I wrote that chapter and I showed it to my husband and he said, well, ‘you have to finish, why was she kidnapped?’ And that led to the next chapter and the rest is history. So I ended up writing a somewhat different book from what I had expected to write and it became this book about fighting corruption.
So, one of the reasons was a very personal account of what happened to me and the reasons why it happened and the stories about the different ways that people were trying to engender leakages within the economy just came out. And that became this book. So that was the first thing, to get out that story. As I was doing it, also all the explanations for the personal attacks and the other attacks I suffered during the time within and outside government, this came naturally as part of the flow.
Why did these things happened, it all began to make sense. I needed to make sense of it to myself, I needed to make sense of it to others, and I needed even to make sense of it to members of the economic team. And I am very, very happy that today we have Dr. Nwanze Okodegbe, right here. He was the Chief Economic Adviser to the president and he was a member of that team. We saw a lot of odd things together. So explanation as to why this thing happened, that is the first part.
The second was that there is just so much going on about corruption in emerging markets around. South Korea, you saw what happened to the president being jailed for 24 years. Brazil, there was so much noise about the car wash scandal. Venezuela, Mexico, Peru, Malaysia, you name it, so many examples of emerging markets countries having one discussion after the other about corruption. And as a development economist, you know this is something central to the work we do, something we worry about. And we just talked about fighting corruption and trying to make sure that resources that should go to eradicating poverty, providing services for poor people are not hijacked by those in society who would do that.
The third reason was just one of giving hope. When you hear about corruption there are rarely any success stories action, people don’t focus on those who are fighting corruption and what successes they made. They focus on more salacious aspects. How much people have stolen, how much they have and what is happening to them. And the tough fight that is really needed and the people who are doing it are not talked about.
In addition to that, there is the tendency to focus as I said on the more sexy aspects in terms of who was arrested, who did what to whom, how much did they steal and what is happening. But the tough, tough work of really wanting to fight corruption of institution building is not talked about. And I am very convinced as I have said to other audiences, that the difference between people in my country and other African countries or the US or Europe is much related.
If they had the same weak institutions that we have, people will also put their hands on the money. It is because these countries have very strong institutions that you find fewer leakages. There is corruption everywhere, whether it is in Europe or the US but the degree is less with those countries with stronger institutions. That work of building stronger institutions takes time. And that was partly what we did in Nigeria, put down some few institutions that helped to block some leakages.
So I also wanted to put that down and draw people’s attention to the fact that it is the hard work that is needed, whether it is strengthening the judiciary, whether it is putting in place in the ministry of finance the kind of financial management systems that are needed in order to manage your finances in modern fashion that doesn’t allow leakages from the budget.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE CHRISTINE LAGARDE’S ENCOUNTER?
About six weeks into the implementation in early December 2011, I received a message that a top ranking presidential aide wanted me to stop by his office any time I was in the Villa. The Villa is the equivalent of the White House.
This official was one of the important aides in the Villa. So, I went to his office the next day. The presidential aide told me that he wanted to convey a message to me that they were people not happy with the port reforms especially the abolishment of the Cargo Tracking Note. And he asked me, indeed advised me to reinstate it.
I was dismayed because the fact that the matter has been brought to his attention meant that whoever the unhappy people were, they were influential. I explained the genesis of the port reforms, the situation of the presidential task force and the approvals for action given by the president.
By implementing the reforms measures we were just carrying out the presidential approvals. He said he understood but that I should nevertheless find a way to reinstate the Cargo Tracking Note.
I left his office very troubled. Being on the wrong side of people who had this kind of top levels influence made me uneasy. I knew they could be consequences but I also knew that there was no going back on these important reforms. Clearly the $6 million from the Nigerian Ports Authority from the Cargo Tracking Note not being remitted to the treasury must be going into some influential pockets.
The morning after meeting with the presidential aide, the consequences began to become clear. I was privileged that part of my daily routine was to join the president and his family and his few close friends in Christian fellowship and morning prayers in the residential complex of the Villa. It was a way to gain strength for each difficult day.
The prayer normally began at 6am so by 5:45am every day, I arrived at the Villa gate I was routinely waved in. That morning the gates remained firmly shot as I drove up and I was told I could not go in. Taken back I asked why, all I could get as a response was that the gate keepers had received instructions not to let me in for morning prayers. I began to argue but realizing that it was fruitless, I returned home. At that point I felt a mistake had occurred and thought no more about it.
But for the next three days I was blocked from entering for the early morning prayers at the Villa. By the third day, the security officers at the gate all of whom knew me well told me, ‘Honourable Minister Ma, I think you need to talk to the presidential aide, ‘they gave me the name of the aide and it was the same person who had asked me to restore the Cargo Tracking Note. Then I understood. When I called one of my prayer fellowship friends on phone, Mr. John Kenny Opara and told him about the situation, he said he would discuss this with the villa pastor and they will intercede on my behalf.
After going to the gate and not allowed in for the fourth time, I pushed the situation to the back of my mind and turned to the preparations for the upcoming visit to Nigeria of the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Madame Christian Lagarde, on December 18-20, 2011.
My biggest preoccupation was to ensure that in the raging national debate about the phase out of oil subsidies, Madame Lagarde’s visit was not miscast by the media or anti-government forces as the IMF telling the government what to do on energy subsidies. Madame Lagarde, was equally concerned that her objectives be clearly understood as reviewing our macroeconomic and growth reform and offering encouragement and support.
The visit proceeded smoothly as Madame Lagarde met with members of the Economic Management Team, the Central Bank and other important bank officials. She was scheduled to meet with the president on the final day of her visit December 20. There are usually many protocols and conventions to observe on high level visits especially when the visitor is accorded head of state’s status as Christine Lagarde was. One of these is for such dignitaries to enter the Villa for a meeting with the president through a gate designated for Heads of State only. Because Madame Lagarde was to use this gate, I had asked my staff to double check and ensure all was in order and I was reassured that this was the case.
But when the motorcade reached this gate it was denied entry. Embarrassed, I tried to find out from the security guards what was going on; they said they had no instructions for her to use that gate. And we should proceed to the entrance reserved for state governors, certain designated ministers I was one of them and other dignitaries. We were already running late.
So I apologised to Madame Lagarde and told her there must be a mix up and asked the drivers to proceed to the other gate. When we got there we were again denied entry. By this time it was clear to me that there was no misunderstanding but that this was deliberate. We were told to go back to the regular entrance used by everybody, park our car there and we will have to walk, five minutes down the villa corridors which were long and leading to the president’s meeting room.
Such treatment of such dignitary at the level of head of state was unheard of. Christine, clever as she is had figured out something was wrong but she didn’t know what. She handled it all with gaits and elegance telling me she didn’t really care which gate she went through or how far she had to walk as long as we met with the president. By this time we were about 10 minutes late. We eventually made it to the meeting.
When the president enquired if everything was alright, she replied wittily, Mr. President there was a bit of a mix up about gates and we had to walk here. But it gives me the chance to see your beautiful Villa and its lovely gardens. The President looked puzzled but smiled and started the meeting. I never shared with him or with Christine Lagarde what I thought had happened that day.
It shocks me to this day that the gate saga as I later described it to John Kennedy, my prayer meeting friend, was part of the fall out of eliminating the Cargo Tracking Note. It still seems unbelievable that people will put at risk such a high level and important visit for the country’s economy because of personal interest.
John Kennedy and the Villa pastor eventually persuaded the top presidential aide to drop this tactics by explaining to him that such tactics could backfire if one day the president summons me for an emergency meeting as he was wont to do and I was prevented from entering the villa and had to tell him why. Eventually, the pressure from the abolition of the Cargo Tracking Note lessened but I remained uneasy until the end of the administration.
But one of the reasons I wrote this book as I said is also to give hope and for the younger people to know that there are actually things you can do that will block corruption. That if we can build all of those institutions and we did at that time, and if you can take a stand that you can have victories that will illustrate that we shouldn’t all give up, we can make it.
WHAT ARE THE LESSONS?
There are several lessons that I think we should take away from the book. One of the most important ones and I call them reflections from the frontline is that, in fighting corruption, corruption has to be fought from inside not outside.
Outsiders cannot fight it. Outsiders can help – donors, country partners and others have a role to play but they can only play a supporting role, they have to find partners from inside, who know exactly how the place works and how it can be fought. You can’t also fight alone, you need coalitions of support, and it is not one person.
People tend to say Okonjo-Iweala fought corruption, no. There were teams, there were members, and you need coalitions. I had people on my ministry, I had people in the economic team, and I had others.
You need support from above in other to make it work. You need communications and signalling that this is not the right way a place should run and that you are going to do something about it. And you need your personal integrity if you are to going to fight this kind of corruption, you absolutely yourself and your team must keep your noise clean and your head straights because if you even deviate one iota, they will get you and you will be punished for it. You have got to have a talk with those working with you; you have got to have a lot of personal integrity.
And those fighting needs help. Is not good enough to stay out here as development partners and practitioners and urged the fight against corruption. I’m lucky because I had options, I had people who supported, I had a place to go. I am very grateful to the international community for the support they gave and for those within the continent who also reached out. There were several heads of states that were supportive.
But what if no one knows you? What if you don’t have a track record outside? What if you had nowhere to go? This is what the development community must think about. If you want people to fight corruption they need to feel the support and they need safety nets, they need to be able to come out if necessary and have a place to go to and resources to support them. So I am advocating that some of the foundations, some of the institutions should think about starting a fund.
I know that when Nuhu Ribadu at the time that his tenure at the EFCC had finished, he needed somewhere to go when things were not so easy for him.
There was no money, no support. I was at the World Bank then as managing director and together with Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development and others, we got together and we manage to get the Norwegians to put money for 18 months to support Nuhu and his family and they gave him a place at Center for Global Development. He was able to bring out his wife and children and they were able to live for 18 months and by that time things had calm down and he was able to go home again.
And then Detongo from Kenya, it was only when friends at Oxford University in England arranged something for him that he was able to have support. But these are adhoc measures and I want us to think of some kind of more permanent supportive system that can encourage people who are really putting themselves on the line to stay steadfast and fight corruption. There is a movement and people are interested in doing this, so let’s see how it goes.
IS CURRUPTION MORE PROMINENT IN AFRICA?
I don’t think corruption is an African problem. It is not in our culture, it is not peculiar to us. In this book, there are few pages about Nigeria, and one of the things I say is that majority of Nigerians are honest, hardworking people who just want the government to provide basic services and then get out of the way and they will do the rest. And that is what it is.
The majority of Nigerians are honest, hardworking people just like anywhere but we do have sometimes corrupt and kleptocratic elites, that have captured the heart of governance and so in essence we were held hostage. And it is the same in many countries but in Africa our institutions are not strong enough, there are weak.
To illustrate to you, in one of the chapters in the book, I talked about the first time I became finance minister, I discovered that the ministry of finance was still doing a lot of things manually and by cash. So if we wanted to pay the ministry of agriculture, we will transfer the money to them.
They will give us a payroll number at the end of the month and then we will total it up and pay. That means you can introduce all kinds of names into the system each month. And so there was a bit of a racket, where people higher up will introduce two or three names, we called them ghost workers and they all died and became ghost pensioners. And people were collecting this money because we didn’t have the system.
So when I discovered this, I was horrified and I said to President Obasanjo at the time that we had to do something and what we did was to go to the World Bank, DFID, USAID Agency and the IMF and we asked for him. We took a World Bank credit of $76 million, so, this is documented to help us build the system. It was an economic governance project and we put in three systems and it took 10 years.
Part of the reason I went back the second time was that when I left the first time, it slowed down and something that should have been finished was still lying there because people were not too interested in completing the work including the government.
We built Government Integrated Financial System Management (GIFSM) that built a platform to link the treasury with the ministries, with the accountant general’s office so we could at least have an IT and an electronic platform for our cash management. Then we put in the Integrated Personnel and Payroll System (IPPS), which required civil servants to get biometric ID, if you do that and you give us an account we can pay you directly and we don’t have to transfer money.
The third part was Treasury Single Account (TSA), which we moved away accounts from the banks where the ministries were keeping them into the central bank, we migrated all the capital accounts first and we were about to do the recurrent accounts in the second time around, when we left office.
As I’m saying this is very difficult, if you think of this as fighting corruption this is not the kind of things that make people run right, all these things GIFSM, IPPIS, TSA sound very technical. But if you say I arrested somebody and blasted it in the press everybody will sit up but that is not going to build you these systems. What I am trying to say is that it is not cultural or inherent it is the absence of such systems.
By the way in the book I did document that we were able to weed out 64,000 ghost workers through the system (IPPIS) and saved the government $1.1 billion.
IS THERE A ROLE FOR A NIGERIAN IN THE DIASPORA TO PLAY IN THIS FIGHT?
You know this is going to sound funny to you, many people said to me that ‘after all the experience and the attacks, I will never go back,’ some young people will say if you were there and they did all these.
But you know I went back not once but three times – I went the first time as economic adviser, second time as finance minister, third time as finance minister and coordinating minister. And I will still say one of the best ways to contribute is to try and go back but it entails a lot of sacrifice and a very, very thick skin.
You know that is one of the ways. Nobody is going to help us build that country. It is very easy, I could have just stayed where I was, I had a perfectly wonderful job that I love. There was nothing driving me and I wasn’t going there to steal, so there was no reason for me to go.
I went because I love my country and no matter what, Nigeria is probably one of the most difficult and complex countries to manage but it is also one of the most interesting and I love it. And that will not change. And if you love it you will want to do something to contribute.
So what I still say to young people in Diaspora, it does not have to be in government, it could be in civil society, it could be in the private sector but if you think you have a skill, there is a niche where you can show that things can be done well and properly, do it. If you can even contribute by changing the life of one person, do it.