Matthew Kukah: A new head-gear for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at 60

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“African educational systems have surprising outcomes. The smartest students pass with first class and get admissions to Medical and Engineering schools. The 2nd Class students get MBAs and LLBs to manage the First class students. The 3rd Class Students enter Politics and rule both the 1st and 2nd class students. The Failures enter the Underworld of crime and control the politicians and the businesses. And, best of all, those who did not attend school become Prophets and everyone follows them…” — Anon.

Once I got to know that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala would be 60 today, I jumped at the idea to do this piece for two reasons. First, elders should do what elders must do to the younger generation. Therefore, it is with a sense of tremendous joy that I welcome Ngozi into the club of elders where some of us have been seated for a while. As she therefore turns 60, I want to join Ngozi’s immediate family, her millions of admirers across the world and the critics alike, to congratulate her for what is indubitably a most sterling career in public service at the highest levels of our government and in the world’s foremost multilateral development finance institutions. My reason for writing this piece is that I want to explore the implications of the above quotation and ask the effectiveness or otherwise of serious, Ivy League-trained intellectuals in shaping public policy. Why would an international scholar with Ngozi’s impeccable credentials and pedigree be doing in public life in a country where politics is not only a contact sport, but one that respects no rules of engagement? What is she in this for, given the apparent lack of appreciation and the occasional vilification and assault integrity?

My conclusion in this tribute, if I may call it that, is to state that those who, like her have thrown their cherished credentials in the ring of public life, must stay the course, remaining undaunted and unfazed. This piece is as much a celebration of her achievements as well as a call to the intellectual elite to rise to the challenges that face our nation. The final point is the fact that she is a woman. Surviving in an that is so predominantly chauvinistic is tough.

Against the background that Ngozi occupies a strategic, enviable, but also naturally controversial position in the architecture of power in Nigeria, it is no surprise that she is an easy target for vilification. The ministry she superintends is never ideologically neutral anywhere in the world. She must appreciate that she is in an ?amphitheatre where ideological dragons have to be slain or tamed. It is therefore a theatre of war and should be the favourite playfield of both real and pseudo intellectuals. It be most strange to imagine that a minister of finance can ever be the subject of adulation or appreciation anywhere in the world. As I reiterate, her persona and the office she represents must be assaulted permanently because those who are benefitting from the abuse of privileges (Duty Waivers?) will seek to dig their feet in while other arms of government assault you with pinpricks of disenchantment. Nevertheless, whatever the controversies around her, whatever mistakes she has made, we must appreciate that she has done so much for our country, right from her first ‘incarnation’ under Olusegun Obasanjo when she led the team that got Nigeria debt-relief. Whatever their sins or their relationships since then, she and her economic crack team of Chukwuma Soludo, Oby Ezekwesili, Nasir el-Rufai, Nuhu Ribadu and other foot soldiers deserve our eternal commendation and appreciation. Very few other things have given our nation the needed confidence and international recognition as that achievement. We are still hungry yes, the resources are still stolen, but that is another matter.

Perhaps more importantly, her role in compiling the revenue allocations to the states and local government areas remains for me, one of the most courageous services aimed at helping in the struggle to hold government accountable. The reactions of state governors and local government chairmen to these revelations of the huge monies allocated monthly for their people but which had made little or no impact in the lives of their people was understandable. Although she has become the object of much vilification, the political class definitely does not understand the level of seething anger and frustration that our people have towards them. A powerless populace watches on as our commonwealth has been turned into personal fiefdoms.