Trust These Girls With Your Money

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An emerging global consensus has underlined that Nigeria’s Finance Minister; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the most qualified person to be World Bank president. At home, erstwhile executive Chairperson of the Federal Inland Revenue Service, Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, gracefully bowed out of office after a tenure that most Nigerians have greeted as exemplary and full of transformative innovation.

Two youngish women united not just by their double-barrel last names but also by their unusual integrity, outstanding intellect and proven competence in areas that have to do with the management of other people’s money. Not just other people’s money but most critically public money and the inherent public trust.

The campaign for the successor to the throne of World Bank President is raging. It is largely a political campaign. The politics is that of world supremacy. That is why the most qualified person may not necessarily get the job. Each time the logic of duty takes me to any major center of world power and Nigeria comes up, I have had to repeatedly grapple with the contradiction of why a nation with so many talented and eminently qualified people keeps turning up with foolish leaders. The response is in the nature of politics in general and Nigerian politics in particular with its peculiar leadership selection process. So, as we watch the usual rite of passage over succession to the leadership of a Bretton Wood institution, we are stepping forward with an eminently qualified Nigerian. This is in our character as a nation. We energetically export our best only to be ruled by the worst.

Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala has distinguished herself at home and abroad. As Obasanjo’s finance Minister, she leveraged the president’s bullish political support to score remarkable success in the management of Nigeria’s rogue-infested economy. She led discussion with both the London and Paris Club of debt collectors that earned Nigeria considerable debt reprieve and a near total clean up of our previously intractable debt peonage. By the time she left office on that earlier tour of duty, our external debt standing had migrated from pathetic to commendable and even attractive.

Most remarkably, Mrs. Okonjo- Iweala was able to skillfully sidestep the cauldron of corruption that the Obasanjo administration had degenerated into and walk off with her integrity reasonably in tact. Her subsequent tenure as World Bank Managing Director was no less remarkable as it marked an increasing redefinition of the relationship between the World Bank and the new ray economies of the former third world and the emergent BRIC nations. Clearly Okonjo- Iweala has had the luck of being in the right places at those moments of critical redefinition of financial systems and relationships.

The unanimity with which African and non-European nations are backing her nomination says something important about the changing nature of world dialogue on the future of the world economy. The frontal backing of Nigeria’s Okonjo Iweala by even conservative European media (including my friends at The Economist!) must say something to the United States and Europe about the future of the relationship among nations on the world economy and indeed the use of economic power to advance other ends.

Ironically, it is perhaps because Okonjo-Iweala’s support is coming from quarters that represent an affront on the received assumptions of world economic power that she is unlikely to get the job. The United States is a formidable power. It has spent decades weaving an intricate web of relationships between itself and other nations. Nearly every nation owes America one. In power relationships among nations, right is on the side of the mighty and strong.

America is used to a regime in which it literally shoehorns its nominees into the presidency of the World Bank while grudgingly allowing its European partners to preside over the IMF. If both institutions were mere joint stock companies, America’s attitude to date would be justified by its massive majority equity holding in both which is larger than those of any other single nation on earth. Add to this the role of the United States and its European allies in the formation of these bodies at the end of the Second World War. Typically of course, both the IMF and the World Bank have served more as instruments of foreign policy than as altruistic development agents. Nations have in the past received development assistance or been starved of it on account of where they have stood in relation to the United States in its global agenda.

The reality of the current global economic equation is about to alter all that. Global wealth is migrating to unintended and unexpected places. China, Brazil, India, Russia and even South Africa are new sources and repositories of vast wealth. Wealth does not travel without influence. The overbearing influence of the United States and Europe in world economic affairs will last for as long as it takes for the combined wealth and influence of these ‘others’ to counterbalance them. Even the importance of the World Bank and the IMF as effective instruments of supremacist foreign policy will not endure for much longer. Chinese funds are achieving faster results in development of unexpected places than decades of IMF and World Bank posturing.

The candidature of someone like Okonjo- Iweala, in spite of her own relative ideological conservatism, may actually speed up the process of neutralisation of American and European influence in world economic affairs. She may even speed up the increased empowerment of the BRIC economies as alternative sources of funds for World Bank development effort around the world. That is precisely why she may not get the job even though we would wish she got it.

At home, there are speculations as to why Jonathan and the politicians are eager that Okonjo-Iweala gets the World Bank job and returns to Washington. She is reportedly quite uncomfortable with the rapacious greed and crass corruption of the politicians. She now has to preside over a ministry that is returning the nation to increased debt perhaps against her won best judgments.

These factors may make it difficult for her to achieve her economic objectives and justify the rather ambitious title of Coordinating Minister for the Economy (whatever that means!). At a personal level, I suspect that without the kind of bullish political support she enjoyed from Obasanjo, Mrs. Iweala’s second coming to Finance may not be as resounding as her earlier tour. Possibly, what she is witnessing in Abuja this time around in terms of free wheeling corruption and lack of policy focus may in fact be so overwhelming that any legitimate exit stunt will do. Therefore, if I was advising the Minister, the World Bank job would be a very good exit strategy from the foundering ship of Jonathan’s beleaguered presidency. Whichever way this goes though, the massive support that Mrs. Iweala is enjoying around the world is perhaps all the reward and vindication she needs for her hard work and sterling credentials.

On her part, my friend and sister, Mrs. Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru, spent the last 8 odd years as the nation’s chief tax collector. Prior to her, this role was a rather lack luster and tepid one. No one knew exactly how much tax the federal government collected. The FIRS was just another colourless civil service organization. Tax avoidance at personal and corporate levels was more the norm. Ifueko’s appointment as tax supremo will go down as one of the brightest spots of the Obasanjo presidency.

Brilliant and unassuming, cerebral and occasionally petulant, powerful without being abrasive, affable but firm and yet warm in a rather distant and instantaneous way, Ifueko brought to the FIRS unusual creativity and ingenuity. She recreated the FIRS from a moribund civil service oriented organization into a modern organization through far reaching reforms of its processes and systems.

Hardly any area of the FIRS was spared this modernizing instinct from human resources development to records, tax administration and the introduction of the relevant IT infrastructure to drive the organization and its effectiveness in the field.

The net effect of these reforms and innovations is a quantum increase in the nation’s tax returns. While her tenure lasted, it became clear to corporations and individuals that the payment of taxes was a civic obligation that reinforced the reciprocal relationship between government and people. Even the most powerful companies were made to face the fullest consequences of tax avoidance or abridgement. Only a few weeks ago, we learnt that high political office holders ranging from the President to Governors would now pay taxes on their legitimate incomes.

While driving tax reform and the collection of taxes to new heights, Ifueko had to come face to face with the reservations and reticence of Nigerians who insisted that successive governments were not sufficiently accountable to justify the full enforcement of their tax obligations. She fully understood these reservations but insisted that the payment of tax as a civic obligation was different from ensuring that governments returned dividends to the people. For her, there are enough political structures and institutional mechanism to make leaders accountable only that Nigerians were not sufficiently public spirited as to fully drive their rights. Hers was the duty of ensuring an efficient and transparent tax administration and tax collection agency.

But interestingly, her reforms of our taxation system do have far reaching political consequences in the long term. Taxation without representation has been the bane of our political system mostly because the revenues that drive our public space come mostly from oil rents and royalties. With Ifueko’s increase in public awareness of tax matters and of course the increased pressure of tax obligations, more and more people are bound to appreciate that it is their tax money that funds the politicians. People are bound to increase their attention to political matters in terms of the quality of those who represent them at state and national levels.

Even more unnerving, this exemplary woman had to contend with the machinations of politicians and their agents who saw the FIRS differently. Her uncompromising stance on matters of integrity was obviously an obstacle in the path of those who saw the nation’s tax money as yet another avenue for money to be used for political ends. It is to her credit that she weathered the storm and has left office with her personal integrity intact. The burden which Ifueko’s track record has created is that of who succeeds her in terms of integrity of both the institution and the individual who leads it. The choice of an individual who is likely to donate our tax money to the coffers of the ruling party will be a tragic reversal of the work of the immediate past incumbent.

The towering stature of both Mrs. Okonjo- Iweala and Omoigui-Okauru ought to inspire not just our women but also the nation as we grapple with the repercussions of failed leadership and public trust. Even more significantly, these women have proved that there are Nigerians in whose care we can entrust public money and go to bed knowing the money will be there when we wake.

 

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