A video clip that is over a year old has resurfaced on social media showing Nigeria’s former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, speaking at an event in which she claimed that Nigeria went into recession because it lacked the political will to save during the “boom times”.
This reminded me of an old saying: “After all is said and done, a lot would have been said, with very little done”. Okonjo-Iweala has mastered the art of saying a lot for self-justifying self-promotion. But she only impresses the economically illiterate. As James Brown would have put it, she is “talking loud and saying nothing”.
Watch the video:
For starters, Nigeria plunged into recession because the economy is almost entirely dependent on crude oil. So the country’s economic fortunes are tied to the oil price. The boom times Okonjo-Iweala was referring to was while she was finance minister under President Goodluck Jonathan, with oil at over $100 per barrel. The real story that the ex-finance minister chose not to talk about was that despite being in charge of setting the economic direction of the country in two stints that lasted seven years, she did very little to wean the economy of its dependence on oil.
Okonjo-Iweala should be apologising to Nigerians for her failure in diversifying the economy away from crude oil, for not making any progress in industrialising, and doing precious little to expand the country’s revenue base by closing tax avoidance loopholes exploited by the multinationals operating in the country. She left the economy just the way she found it – completely at the mercy of fluctuations in the oil market. And to divert attention from her culpability in the mess, she chooses to blame the absence of political will to save.
Secondly, the issue of saving only makes sense for those incapable of looking beyond the surface. It is only sensible to save for the rainy day if it isn’t raining everyday. In her seven years as finance minister, Nigeria was experiencing torrential “rain” in terms of crumbling infrastructure, decrepit social services, worsening electricity supply, decaying public schools, youth unemployment at epidemic levels, and an exponential growth in poverty. All these massive challenges, that threatened the fabric of the country and its security, required significant government intervention in terms of funding and not putting the money away for some mythical rainy day. She claimed her savings plan “worked well” before. It “worked ” for whom? Certainly not for the overwhelming majority of Nigerians.
Telling long-suffering Nigerians that they would be better off if money that could have been spent on programmes of social uplift was saved for some unforeseen future occurrence, is voodoo economics of the worst order against a backdrop of children dying from malnutrition and poor access to clean water, and hundreds of thousands dying from treatable diseases. In fact, investing in critical infrastructure such as power and water supply is more likely to increase your GDP and help to avoid recession.
Okonjo-Iweala was a former World Bank managing director and her former employer claimed that: “The benefits of tackling the challenges of sanitation are manifold. Improved sanitation leads to lower disease burden, improved nutrition, reduced stunting, improved quality of life, increased attendance of girls at school, healthier living environments, better environmental stewardship, increased job opportunities and wages, improved competitiveness of cities, and economic and social gains to society more broadly”. The World Bank also added: “Lack of sanitation also holds back economic growth. Poor sanitation costs billions to some countries, amounting to the equivalent of 6.3% of GDP in Bangladesh, 6.4% of GDP in India, 7.2% of GDP in Cambodia, 2.4% of GDP in Niger, and 3.9% of GDP in Pakistan annually. The economic losses are mainly driven by premature deaths, the cost of health care treatment, lost time and productivity seeking treatment, and lost time and productivity finding access to sanitation facilities”.
Rather than saving money, Nigeria would have been better off spending it on water supply and sanitation. Such investment is the route to development and economic growth and not by hiding the money under a mattress.
American writer W.C. Fields once rightly noted: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit”. Okonjo-Iweala was nowhere near brilliant as finance minister, as could be seen from the evidence of utter failure to diversify the economy. She has since chosen to baffle ignorant Nigerians with bullshit. And judging by the reaction on social media, she has been quite successful.