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Trying To Reform Nigeria Amid Family Kidnapping

Dec 10, 2012
Originally published on December 10, 2012 12:46 pm



We want to turn now from Ghana to Nigeria, where there is disturbing news. The mother of Nigeria's finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was kidnapped this weekend. Police say they've launched a massive search to find her.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a name you might remember from her stint in the U.S. as managing director of the World Bank. She also made a high profile bid for the presidency of the World Bank. Although she did not succeed, that effort raised awareness both of her and her work in Nigeria and Africa's economic fatality, where growth rates in some countries outpaced the U.S. and Europe.

After the World Bank bid, she returned to Nigeria for another term as finance minister, where she's been advancing an agenda for reform in Africa's most populous country. Not only that, the country is one of Africa's economic giants, but it's also fair to say that for many people Nigeria stands more for corruption, kidnapping and Internet scams than for productive economic activity.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala went so far as to say that Nigeria was broken, even hopeless, when she first took office. She now says that although the work continues, what Nigeria has accomplished so far may have lessons for reforming other countries the world deems unreformable.

She's set out her ideas in a new book. It's called "Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons From Nigeria." We caught up with her on a brief stop to Washington, D.C. when she was here to talk about the book just days before the kidnapping.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, when you were initially appointed as finance minister in 2003, people might remember that Nigeria was finding its feet again after decades of military rule, and you describe how you needed to reestablish credibility again with both Nigerians and with the international community, and a decade later do you think you've accomplished that?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, I would say that challenges still remain a decade later, but the book really is about sounding a note of optimism, that many of those who thought, oh, Nigeria is so problematic, it cannot possibly turn around, you know, when they read the book, they find that nobody - no country is ever reformable and that we were able to accomplish many things.

And I'd like to say off the bat that it wasn't just me. There was really a team. You know, no one person can change a country alone. We really had a team of dedicated reformers and a president who backed us at the time. That was during the second administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo.

MARTIN: One of the reasons that Nigeria, I think, stands out is that this is not a poor country in the sense that there is - there are sources of wealth. I mean Nigeria is Africa's largest crude oil exporter. It has one of the world's biggest gas reserves. But then, you know, there's the question of how these resources are managed, so I think, you know, one of the first things, you know, we'd ask you is, what was your first target when you took office?

OKONJO-IWEALA: I want to make two points. Many people look at Nigeria as a very wealthy country, but it's also a very large country. It's 167 million people and so, you know, the riches - the resources have to spread over a larger number of people, so it's not as wealthy as people think because of the large population.

Nevertheless, it does have the resources, and one of the first things we had to do is look at how can we manage that better? How do we just get the budget processes, the management of these resources right? How do we fight corruption, because that was there, and try to keep resources from leaking?

MARTIN: But one of the points that I think honest people will recognize is that people may want to point the finger internally into the country and say that this is just a lot of greedy people with their hands in the pie, but then in a lot of ways the multinationals have been complicit in this.

I mean, in October, Reuters reported that the country lost out on tens of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenues over the last decade from cut-price deals struck between multinational oil companies and government officials. So how does one address that, when sometimes the international community is complicit in this?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, you know, this is part of what we're saying. First of all, yes, on both sides. If you read the book, you see a tale of corruption, you know, is how a consortium actually tried to bribe their way to a contract, you know, for one of the oil and gas contracts, how they gave bribes of up to $180 million. So it's not just inside. It's also from outside. Companies have to stop offering these bribes.

You know, there's sort of a supply-and-demand factor, those demanding the bribes and those supplying, and, on both sides, you've got to act. Within ourselves, the issue is to show strongly that there will be no impunity, that people caught will be tried and go to jail. We are not completely there yet, but it's beginning to happen.

For instance, we've just cleaned up our oil subsidy scheme that had a lot of people with scams and malpractices, and we've identified and published the names of companies and individuals who were involved in this in the papers. We are making them pay back what they owe to government, and they're being prosecuted.

Could we do more? Certainly. You know, we could and should continue to do more. There's certainly a lot of fight against corruption that needs to keep happening in the country.

MARTIN: I mean, you can see where it becomes a vicious circle, right, that if there's a sense that the corruption is endemic and people start to believe that that's the only way they can get ahead, then they'll be more focused on how can they get their little piece of it. Because they'll feel like they're a fool if they don't get their little piece of it. But if everybody's getting their piece of it, then you can never build those institutions where people have more confidence in the institution and in the rules than they will feel the need to kind of cut their own deal. Right?


MARTIN: So how do you build that so that people have confidence that, if they play by the rules, that they, too, will prosper?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Well, there - the book actually shows that. First, it shows a group of people who are doing reform, backed by a president at that time, and that these people were busy, that they - you can't have a group of dedicated people who are focusing on delivering for the country and convincing people that - look, if you play by the rules, you will get things done. And I think that's what we need. You need leadership in this. It doesn't just happen.

So you need leadership. You need to be able to demonstrate there are people who don't put their hands in the till, and you need to know that the majority of Nigerians, 99.9 percent, are ordinary, hardworking people, you know, who are not doing - they are not corrupt. They are normal people doing their job, and we must not let a small, tiny percentage of the people who are corrupt define this country. And this book talks about the fact that, yes, it is possible. It is possible to do those reforms.

You can fight the vested interest. You cannot allow them to overwhelm the country. They are in the tiny minority, and we will not let them define what Nigeria is.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She is the finance minister from Nigeria. She has a new book out. It's called "Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria."

Have you been able to figure out who's for real and who isn't? I mean, who really is dedicated to the best interests of people? Because, you know, really, I hate to say, some of the continent's worst dictators have come in claiming that they were the person who's going to improve people's lives, and then they've turned out to be either corrupt or vicious killers. And so how - have you figured out how to figure out who's real and who isn't?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Michel, I think the day we figure all that out - you know, you and me - I think we would have done very well. It's not so easy to figure out in real life. That's what this book says. Sometimes, you have the people who are trying to do something good drowned out by those who mean badly for the country. But I tell you, if you go directly to the population, sometimes, they can tell you. They know who is good and who is not good.

So a dictator or a bad leader may stay in place. That doesn't mean that they're really supported by their people.

MARTIN: The book is titled "Lessons from Nigeria," and I'm wondering what lessons you think might be particularly applicable to other countries and scenarios, particularly those that don't have Nigeria's natural resources, that don't have the sources of oil and gas. You know, I think part of the message of the book is just getting that right could go a long way toward improving the country's economic conditions. But what about countries that don't have that? Are there any lessons you particularly think are worth noting?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Yes. I think, you know, on the economic side of it, if you want to change the way the economy's being run in a country, there are certain lessons of dos and don'ts. The first is that, one, you need to identify reforms that are quick wins. Reforms are very difficult in any circumstance, but until you can do one or two that are wins, to be able to convince the population that this really will work for them, you'll be flaying around, because it's so difficult. That applies to any country, whether it is, you know, a resource-rich or non-resource rich.

The second is you need to have a playbook. You really can't just go in and do reforms in a scattered fashion, because each reform you do will meet resistance. In any country, there are entrenched interests. It doesn't have anything to do with being corrupt or not. Are people benefitting from a given system the way it works, even here in the U.S.? So you've got to know what your endgame is, and you've got to drive to that endgame.

And I think one other really important lesson is to learn that you're not going to succeed in all of it. Learn to acknowledge failure where you can't make headway, and then to try to step back and learn from that failure and to move on.

And, finally, you need a team, not one person - there's no one person who can do reform alone, not even their president, by themselves. They've got to build a team of reformers who are willing to go into different areas and avenues and push those reforms.

MARTIN: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is an economist. She is Nigeria's coordinating minister for the economy and minister of finance. Her latest book is titled "Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria," and she was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios on a brief visit to the United States.

Thank you so much for joining us.

OKONJO-IWEALA: Thank you, Michel. A pleasure.

MARTIN: We will continue to follow the efforts to locate Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala's mother, and we'll keep you up-to-date on events as we learn them. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.