Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
By Ndubuisi Francis
The Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has provided a detailed 100-page documented response to the 50 questions posed by the House of Representatives Committee on Finance on the state of the economy.
In a statement issued by her Special Adviser on Media, Mr. Paul Nwabuikwu, the minister said the document provides, in extensive detail, including tables and graphs, answers to the committee’s well-publicised questions.
The minister confirmed to THISDAY that the document was delivered to each of the members of the finance committee Wednesday evening.
In her response, Okonjo-Iweala stressed that in spite of the many challenges which government had acknowledged, the Nigerian economy is showing real and measurable progress in many areas, adding, “This can be seen in the fact that more jobs are being created; roads, rail and other infrastructure are being improved; the country is saving for the future and planning better for the present.”
According to her, “The Jonathan administration, contrary to the impression given by some critics, is making an impact in the areas that, according to credible opinion polls, Nigerians are most passionate about.
“For instance, on job creation which is a central focus of the administration, a total of 1.6 million jobs were created last year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) of which 250,000 were seasonal jobs created in dry season farming in 10 northern states.
“In manufacturing, the Onne Oil and Gas Free zone created an estimated 30,000 direct and indirect jobs. The government special intervention programme YouWin supported young entrepreneurs, creating over 18,000 jobs. The SURE-P Community Services programme has also created 120,000 job opportunities.”
The statement added that Okonjo-Iweala also pointed to the improvement in federal highways, which she said had been confirmed by many Nigerians who travelled during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
“Key highways which have witnessed significant progress include Kano-Maiduguri Road, the Abuja-Lokoja Road, the Apapa-Oshodi Road, the Onitsha-Enugu-Port-Harcourt Road and the Benin-Ore-Shagamu Road. Preliminary work has commenced on Lagos-Ibadan road and the Second Niger Bridge.
“The Railway Modernization Programme involving the construction of standard gauge lines is underway. The 1,124 km Western line linking Lagos and Kano is now functional, while work on the Eastern line linking Port Harcourt to Maiduguri is about 36 per cent complete.
“The Abuja-Kaduna Standard Gauge line has attained 68 per cent completion, and the Itakpe-Ajaokuta-Warri Line which is presently 77 per cent completed, will be completed next year.
“The annual passenger traffic on our railways has increased steadily, rising from 1 million in 2011 to 5 million in 2013,” the minister’s spokesman said.
One of the issues Okonjo-Iweala dealt with was the charge made by the Chairman of the Finance Committee, Hon. Abdulmumin Jubrin, in the media that the country is racking up debts under her watch as finance minister.
On this issue, the statement said Okonjo-Iweala dismissed the allegation, stating there was no substance to the charge.
“In fact, the opposite is true. Right from her Senate confirmation hearing in 2011, the minister had identified rising debt as a major challenge, which the country needs to confront.
“Under the leadership of President Jonathan and working with the Debt Management Office and the Budget Office of the Federation, the minister followed through with a robust approach which includes progressive reduction of borrowing, quick settlement of due debts and the retirement of N75 billion of maturing bonds via a Sinking Fund dedicated to paying off substantial bonds.
“These measures have produced clear results as shown in the reduction of borrowing from N852 billion in 2011 to N571.9 billion this year,” the minister was said to have explained in her document to the House committee.
Nwabuikwu further pointed out that the minister drew the attention of the committee to the fact that many of the 50 questions had been adequately answered at various fora, including meetings and open hearings organised by the House committee.
“The minister’s detailed response in spite of this, is a reflection of her well known high regard for the National Assembly as an institution,” he added.
Also, in her preamble to the 100-page response to the committee, the minister informed the committee that most of the responses to the 50 questions were already in the public domain and had been extensively debated by the government, journalists, civil society organization and the private sector.
She said: “We would have thought that honorable members of this committee, which focuses on our nation’s finances, would have been adequately informed on these topics.”
She further informed the committee that a lot of the questions were repetitive in several instances, and in some cases, were directly contradictory, adding, “It is therefore unclear if the House committee has a coherent policy agenda for our nation’s development, or whether these questions are simply meant to stir confusion and detract us from the Transformation Agenda of the current administration.”
Okonjo-Iweala also accused the committee of personalising most of the questions by focusing on her instead of focusing on the economy, saying, “This is disappointing and trivialises important discussions needed for Nigeria’s development. In our responses, we choose to do otherwise. We focus instead on policy issues and provide empirical data to support our discussions where necessary.”
For the reasons above, the minister said: “We believe such protracted exchanges are a distraction to the executive and ultimately a disservice to Nigerians.
“We would recommend more measured and civil exchanges in the future, which are informative for Nigerians and also enable the executive to focus on its goal of implementing programmes and projects across our nation.”
In spite of these concerns, Okonjo-Iweala concluded the preamble by stating that she was pleased to provide the responses to the various questions and hoped that they will be informative for the committee members and for all Nigerians.
Last December, the finance committee had presented the 50 questions to the minister and asked her to respond to them during a public hearing.
However, she had informed the committee that she was unwell and would not be able to address the issues raised in the posers given to her by the committee.
But her response did not go down well with Jubrin who then asked her to go with the questions and return in two weeks time with the answers.
At this juncture, Okonjo-Iweala’s changed her mind and insisted on attempting to address the question on that day with the assistance of her aides who were present at the public hearing.
But this again was rejected by Jubrin and degenerated into a heated altercation between her and the committee chairman.
Ever since then, the House and the committee had made it clear that they would not consider the 2014 Appropriation Bill until the minister responds to the questions.
•Click to see full text of the minister's response to the House Committee