Reforming the Unreformable: The Unfinished Business B y Akinola Johnson
Few years ago, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wrote a book by this same title. I had the good fortune of reading this book few days ago. What resulted from my reading this book was a lightbulb moment which I will now attempt to document with the hope that people like me, who want nothing more than to see this nation set on the right path, will get some clarity on certain matters currently filling our consciousness as a result of the news hitting our airwaves and digital space.
Contrary to what we have been told and the accusations that have been hurled at the finance minister in the last year or so, I have found that from as far back as 2003, Dr Okonjo-Iweala has been calling for reforms of parastatals, Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and other government-owned entities. One of the things she quickly observed when she became finance minister under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration was that entities like Customs, The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and a few others were structured by the military to be opaque and to enable deliberate siphoning of funds. And these nefarious activities had gone on for so long that she knew fighting that level of corruption would be an uphill task, but she did not relent nor has she given up even till now.
It is amazing – and even offensive – that it took a major scandal such as the allegedly missing $20 billion from the coffers of NNPC as well as the Pwc audit report to open the eyes of many to the same issue that Madam Iweala has been singing about for years. Of course, NNPC is in dire need of reforms, but let us not be so distracted by all the hype and buzz this news is creating and lead ourselves in the erroneous belief that it is NNPC alone that must be dealt the firm hand of reformation. These same people
who now clamour for its reform should also speak on the reform of Customs, since it is a huge money generator for government.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala herself mentions Customs reforms in her book, calling it an outright failure. Like many other government-owned entities, when the reform was broached, it was immediately met with a lot of resistance and opposition because the powerful political elites controlling that and other organisations fought hard to crush her efforts. The honourable minister admits that the structural reforms carried out at that time required time; and with the administration winding down its activities, it left behind some unfinished businesses, while some other reforms suffered major setbacks.
One major cause of setbacks, apart from lack of continuity, was the ability of the political elite to influence decision-making, to frustrate all efforts made and to block any hope of achieving success. It is clear that these people, who did not want their lucrative means of enrichment blocked, would stop at nothing to ensure the reforms met with little or no success at all. Powerful Northern interests would besiege the Presidency to halt any reforms that would affect their pockets and bank accounts. This
happened during Obasanjo’s government and happened under Goodluck Jonathan also.
In our bid to ensure transparency and accountability in the management of our national resources through necessary reforms, let us not stop with NNPC and Customs alone. There is a call for a complete overhaul of every sector, every ministry, and every parastatal. This is the time for a wholesome reformation of the nation. Call Dr Okonjo-Iweala a prophet, and her book a prophecy of sorts. She has foretold too accurately that reformation is not only important; it is the foundation upon which we must build a new Nigeria.
The president-elect would do well to know that if there is any hope of fulfilling his promises to the Nigerian people, then he must use Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s book as a roadmap. But should we stop at parastatals, MDAs, ministries and other government-controlled organisations? I do not think so. The minds of the people too need a major overhaul; the scales in our mental eyes need to fall off so that we can truly see the issues pervading this nation as they really are.
Akinola Johnson writes from Garki, Abuja