Like the Flight of the Chicken?

Just as the chicken cannot sustain its flight for a long period, an economy can also easily return to ground shortly after takeoff.

10.07.2006

NOIThe recent cabinet reshuffle by Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo received mild analytical treatment in media commentaries and ‘beer parlour’ discourses across the country. This is in tune with our perceptions of such ministerial swaps as merely routine and usually of no effect. To that extent, Nigerians are not wont to sift the implications of personnel changes in high places to know who fits into what and who brings what to the table. In a normal country, such presidential placement of ministers is usually indicative of policy priorities and directions.

At the start of his second term in office, President Obasanjo constituted a highly rated team of reformists and fixing the economy was Job No. 1. Development realism places the economy on top of the agenda for any society that is intent on making meaningful progress. A 2003 Global Economics Paper by investment advisors, Goldman Sachs listed macroeconomic stability as the first in a set of four core conditions for growth. The Minister of Finance, Dr. (Mrs.) Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala was also the leader of Team Obasanjo 2003 and she unleashed a series of macroeconomic reforms initiatives in the areas of fiscal policy, budget discipline, debt relief and priority spending. In doing this, she began to chart a course towards macroeconomic stability. The connoisseurs of economic science noticed her efforts and applauded the results of her work. In January 2006, foreign rating agencies like Fitch and Standard & Poor’s gave a thumbs-up to our macroeconomic environment by releasing unprecedented favourable ratings on the Nigerian economy to boost investor confidence. Goldman Sachs even predicted that Nigeria could be the 20th largest economy in the world by the year 2025.

It, therefore, goes without saying that we need more vigilance and less hubris because like the flight of the chicken, we have lacked sustained economic growth in the past. That was why I had to ward off suggestions from a co-participant at the last Nigerian Economic Summit that Okonjo-Iweala should be drafted to the presidential race in 2007. I will return to that later. In my view, since she has successfully discovered the Holy Grail on managing Nigeria’s economy, it would be good to keep her on the job for as long as it will take to put our economy on a safe trajectory. In simple English, we are not there yet and we have yet taken the first infant steps on the path to economic uhuru and if we think that her job is done as Finance Minister then we delude ourselves and trivialize, or even impoverish commonsense as it concerns what it really takes to turn the corner and stay on course to sustainable economic growth. A few examples from some African countries who take their economies very seriously will offer useful expositions. During the last years of the Rawlings’ era in Ghana, Richard Peprah was Finance Minister from 1995 to 2001 (a period of 6 years) and he underpinned the reforms for the incoming administration. Luisa Diogo headed the Finance Ministry of Mozambique from 1994 to 2006 (a period of 12 years!) while her opposite number in Rwanda and current ADB President, Donald Kaberuka was in office from 1997 to 2005 (a period of 8 years). Both of them are reputed to have overseen the most dramatic and sustained economic turnarounds of war- torn economies. Gaolathe Baledzihas been Botswana’s Finance Minister since 1999 just like Trevor Manuel in South Africa (a period of 7 years and still counting). Why did they have to stay so long? Memo from Bill Clinton: It’s the economy, stupid!

These Finance Ministers did not only have the knowledge, experience and dedication to duty that is required for the job, they also oversaw the maturation period it takes for economic policies to produce real and lasting results. In the end, their various countries benefited from it. It is for this reason that I had placed my fingers on the computer keyboard to churn out articles advocating that the next administration should see the wisdom in the choice of Okonjo- Iweala for the Ministry of Finance and thereby make every effort to convince her to remain in that office after 2007 as a continuance of the good judgement of President Obasanjo in appointing her. But guess who has made nonsense of that good judgement all by himself?

A lot of speculations are making the rounds on the justification for her redeployment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Much as I do not agree with them for the reasons I have mentioned, but as an aside I would take on just two of them from other perspectives. A friend of mine within the policy reforms circles believes that Nigeria’s foreign policy is in need of reforms. Economic diplomacy, yes, but I would rather argue that we need more immediate reforms and a change of guards in the Power and Transport sectors because we require uninterrupted power supply and an efficient rail system to reap the benefits of reforms cum economic diplomacy. Reforms cannot deliver the goods if certain ministries are not considered to be the ‘hubs of reforms’ and thereby insulated from the luxury of patronage politics. Another sterile speculation is that Madam might soon be called up to a higher office (read presidency). I have written that Nigeria will be better served with her doing what she knows best in the Ministry of Finance. However, on this point I would also issue a travel advisory to dissenters of this viewpoint: Go to Anambra State. Mr. Peter Obi is one of the finest brains in this country. He knows what it takes to make an economy work for the people. He has been in office for about three months but for the past month or so, he is engaged in pitched battles with MASSOB and an association of road transport workers. If Dr. (Mrs.) Okonjo-Iweala assumes the presidency on account of her sound knowledge of economic policy, pray, what happens when she too gets distracted by such frequent irritations as an ethnic or religious disturbance in Kano, Ibadan, Onitsha or the recurring rumblings in the Niger- Delta? Whither economic policy?

I have strongly advocated that all Nigerians must do what it takes to elect a transformational leader in 2007 and I have written about it in the past but for the sake of our economy we still need Okonjo-Iweala as the Minister of Finance. Just as the chicken cannot sustain its flight for a long period, an economy can also easily return to ground shortly after takeoff and I am worried that the recent cabinet reshuffle especially as it relates to the Finance Ministry (and worse still, our attitude to the next presidential election) might lead us to that risky scenario. I sincerely hope that I will be proved wrong.

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