Tantrums of a Discredited Empress, By Chidi Amuta
THISDAY edition of 16th May contains on its back page what was meant to be a rejoinder to my earlier piece on the still missing Chibok girls: “The Girls and the Rot”, published two days earlier on 14th May. As it would happen, my critical participation in a debate that has engulfed the world was quickly appropriated by the Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who, ostensibly through a mercenary hand, proceeded to heap mostly unfounded and actionable personal insult on this reporter in a most cowardly fashion.
Anyone who is familiar with THISDAY’s online house style will have noticed the Freudian slip. Every contributor to the back page has their portrait on display adjacent to the title of their piece. It is the portrait of Okonjo-Iweala that adorns the “right of reply” on the THISDAY Live web site, not that of the mendicant non–entity (I prefer non-entity when the subject is of doubtful existence), Onome Mark. The inference is self- revealing.
On this score, I am disappointed that Okonjo- Iweala did not have the courage of her own conviction to pen the response herself. To outsource her response to some Onome Mark (not his real name), a regular serf of the system who may actually be a Ghanaian destitute blogger is in the character of today’s desperate officialdom. This ready recourse to mercenary hatchet men to devalue our national discourse is perhaps a Freudian endorsement of the culture of slavery against which the world has risen in unison on the Chibok girls matter. Clearly, hiring cash strapped youth or starving foreigners to do one’s hatchet jobs falls squarely in the realm of modern day slavery.
My piece in question was a free contribution to the raging global debate over dimensions of the still missing Chibok girls. For the avoidance of doubt, the simple logic train that runs through my piece in question is simple: the kidnapping of the Chibok girls has focused world attention on Nigeria in a manner that exposes the rot in the Nigerian state system. It challenges us to raise our national governance to higher standards in order to avoid the kind of deluge of embarrassing running commentary that has rained on us in the last fortnight. I am not about to shift one inch from that thesis.
There is too much evidence of this hostile interest in Nigeria all over the world to take up space here. But see what the world is saying about us: Senator McCain referred to Nigeria’s government as ‘hardly existent’ and referred to the president in even more unflattering terms. Mrs. Hilary Clinton said the Nigerian government has presided over the squandering of our oil money and is incapable of securing women and children in northern Nigeria. The New York Times says President Jonathan “heads a corrupt government with little credibility”. The Economist called our government ‘clueless’. British Foreign Secretary William Hague on the eve of the just concluded summit in France said the federal government lacks serious capability in dealing with the Boko Haram scourge. The Pentagon is hesitant to trust Nigerian military commanders with any credible intelligence on the insurgency for fear they may be compromised. And The Times of London is asking why statistical economic success has not produced stability in Nigeria. The list is endless, almost. I did not author these scathing indictments on the president and his “reformers”!
On the contrary, less than 2 percent of my piece on the Chibok girls was devoted to a fair criticism of the Finance Minister’s sorry outing on CNN on the same matter, side by side, with Wole Soyinka. My criticism of Okonjo-Iweala and the Ministry of Finance over which she superintends was simply this: a Minister who has presided over approvals of trillion Naira national defence and security budgets for over 5 years has no business begging for the assistance of foreign powers with the requisite technology and equipment to free the Chibok girls. That is my personal view, to which a democratic environment entitles me.
In a democracy, the right to hold views including those that may run contrary to those of even the most glorified apologists of the system remains sacrosanct. I have a right to insist that our nation deserves a better and higher standard of governance than we now have. I have a right to request our government to protect us from the kind of searing indictments that we are currently getting. The expression of this reservation has nothing to do with any pecuniary interests. But it is typical of Okonjo-Iweala and her hirelings to want to reduce everyone to their sordid level. If all Nigerians who express views that run contrary to the skewed self-serving slant of officialdom have been bribed, then where is the space for genuine national engagement and discourse?
Nigerians need to watch out for a creeping but rather dangerous sign of dictatorship than meets the eye. There is this curious logic that only those whose views are supportive of the Jonathan administration are patriotic while those who dissent or freely express their disappointment with the failings of the regime are anti-Nigeria and must be hanged by the slaves of the system–a growing army of handy serfs of a burgeoning official slave trade in ‘information damagers’.
Several of our young men and women have been hired literally on a pittance and commissioned to look out for anti- administration views in the media. Quickly, these blood hounds (probably paid from some ill-digested SURE-P slush funds) jump onto their cheap laptops and get into the social media. I understand some of them are paid on the basis of the number of invectives they hurl at those perceived as regime opponents. Through this indiscriminate hiring of online and off line information slaves, our public discourse has been reduced to the gutter speak.
However, there is a danger in addressing people that one hardly knows through a pubic medium. The Minister’s hidden hand in the right of reply makes snide remarks about ‘envelop journalism’ etc. and infers that I may have expressed my perspective on the Chibok girls at the instance of some interests in the public space who may have differences with Okonjo-Iweala. Ordinarily I would not response to such adolescent inanities since they are bereft of logic and even common sense and drenched in scandalous ignorance. I can only deal with the inaccuracies and misrepresentations that concern me.
The writer’s perception of my journalistic career is that I have been a columnist only in the last five years. This is tragic research and lazy hatchet job. From 1986 to 2014 does not sound like five years in journalism to me. The Minister’s office should contain people with enough knowledge of our media culture and history to be able to trace my history in the evolution of that most noble profession. They can be excused for not bothering with my pre-journalism academic odyssey.
For the avoidance of doubt, my active journalism days spanned between 1986 and officially ended in December, 1999. But once a journalist, always one; hence the occasional columns. I have been a self- employed private business person for close to two decades. As an employer of labour, I know exactly what it means to talk of youth unemployment. Therefore when the Minister of Finance bandies silly figures about jobs created under her watch, I am bound to join those who insist that those figures may contain some viruses. As an importer, I know the impact on the bottom line of indiscriminate waivers arbitrarily granted to competitors. As a consultant, I know what it does to the level playing field and access to opportunity when Ministers insist on appointing their brothers and family members for lucrative consulting jobs in their departments to the exclusion of better qualified companies.
It is true that I have friends across the length and breadth of our country, irrespective of creed, age, gender and party affiliation. Some of them have occupied and are still occupying high political offices. I remain proud of all my friends. I respect all of them for the great work they have continued to do for our country. I hold my views and tell them to their faces whatever reservations I have about their politics, governance and policies. I can confidently say that each one of them is capable of waging their own fights with devastating effectiveness. Happily also, there are hardly any of them who can or is in a position to employ or hire me to do their biddings. So here is an unlikely candidate for ‘brown envelope’ or gratification through journalism, having not applied for nor kept a journalism job for the past 15 years! In this period I have routinely and severally turned down the same jobs that people are getting so excited about.
For the avoidance of doubt, I have no personal reasons to antagonize Dr. Okonjo-Iweala whom I have never met. But what she is presiding over belongs to all of us and her decisions affect us all. On the other hand, I am happy that she is among the few ministers in the Jonathan cabinet who went to proper verifiable schools. I had once eulogized her and my friend, Mrs. Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru as people whose achievements Nigerian women should be proud of. When under Obasanjo her special salary became an issue, I argued publicly that qualified people have a right to negotiate and receive a fair pay in whatever currency their employer is ready to pay. But I insist that her present Ministerial toga is not an armour against rigorous public accountability. It is also not an excuse to want to frighten off fellow Nigerians from expressing their legitimate views on the affairs of the nation be it freedom for the Chibok girls or the nonsense in the Ministry of Finance.
Since she insists on her sterling achievements in public office, I see two distinct Okonjo-Iwealas. The first is the one that served most creditably under Obasanjo’s presidency. I am referring to the one who negotiated the debt reprieves with the London and Paris Clubs and helped to get Nigeria off the infamy of debt peonage. I am talking here of the one who worked in concert with other members of the Obasanjo Economic Team to make the right noises and establish the basic framework that opened the possibility of modernization of the Nigerian economy.
The second Okonjo-Iweala is something of a pitiable tragic reversal. The current one is presiding over the Ministry of Finance under President Jonathan and that Ministry’s reported serial association with all manner of economic felons.
Since I do not work for the Ministry of Finance, I can make some disclaimers. I did not grant the duty waivers for the importation of Ms Stella Oduah’s armored vehicles. I did not arrive at the computation that Nigeria lost a frightening N1.4 trillion on import waivers in the last three years. I am not the one that could not offer any credible explanation as to the whereabouts of the S49 billion, $12 billion or is it $10 billion of the nation’s oil earnings that former CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi alleged was not accounted for. I did not appoint any of my relations or brothers as consultants and commission agents over Nigeria’s debt forgiveness negotiations and ensured that they paid no taxes in any known jurisdiction.
Furthermore, I am not the one that reportedly approved to spend N4 billion in 4 days hosting the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Abuja a few days back after chasing away the residents. It did not matter that most of the national delegations have embassies here that picked up their bills and provided them more credible logistics and security.
To preside over a Ministry of Finance that has a habit of being even remotely associated with these untidy book keeping practices is not exactly the most glowing tribute to the Rt. Hon. Minister and “Reformer extraordinaire”, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s otherwise well-polished academic credentials and troubled credibility.
Looking at the contrast between her two tenures, many have begun to fear that the achievements previously credited to Okonjo-Iweala may have been the product of Obasanjo’s own famed bullish political sagacity and the combined intellectual fire power of people like Oby Ezekwesili, Nasir El Rufai, Nuhu Ribadu and Chukwuma Soludo among others. I do not know.
On the other hand, I do not have any problem with rebasing the economy to announce that we are now among the richest nations of the world. Grand delusions are among the legitimate entitlements of even the most backward regimes. I agree that we are a rich nation. I agree also that Nigerians are among the most hard working and enterprising people in the world. The new GDP figures for Nigeria justify the independent strivings of our people. The urgent work that will need to be done is the re-basing of our politics and governance to meet the minimal demands of a new economy. Many agree that the aggregate quality of leadership required to lead Nigeria is by far higher than the current collective of bumbling opportunists in Abuja.
One last point on politics and leadership in the days ahead: Mr. Jonathan needs to be more vigilant in his political calculations about two trends. First, he has in his cabinet Ministers and high officials who display traits of a fledgling tyranny. These baby autocrats are intolerant of criticism, are building personality cults and generally conducting the affairs of their ministries like medieval lords. These conducts run counter to the President’s more genteel mien and generally commendable tolerance level.
Secondly, some Ministers are undisguisedly very ambitious and are hiding under their “international exposure” to market their own personal political agenda. They are busy contacting world leaders to sponsor them against Jonathan in 2015. Some are organising gatherings ostensibly to help the President while actually burnishing their own private political agenda. They are sponsoring clandestine political meetings through proxies in their home states where they are feasting on the President’s perceived weaknesses. Some have hired expensive international PR agencies that place them on every conceivable list of international recognitions to advance their cause. It is these in-house ‘opponents’ that pose the greater threat to the President’s political future.
My final advice: those who want to approximate the status of pontifax maximus on matters concerning Nigeria must mind the thorns. This nation belongs to us all.
Dr. Amuta, a literary theorist, author, and teacher, contributed this piece from lagos where he lives.