Book: Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines
Author: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Publishers: The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
ISBN 9780262038010 (hardcover)
Reviewer: Vincent Obia
That Nigeria is endowed with enormous potential for greatness is a fact no one can dispute. From rich, vast land and water resources, to a perfect climate, everyone seems to agree that Mother Nature was in a good mood when she created Nigeria.
What has, however, remained an object of global bewilderment and the subject of sad discourse is why the most populous black nation on earth has not fulfilled its promise. Corruption is always as the usual culprit. But rarely has anyone, especially those who have engaged corruption at close quarters, elucidated its deleterious consequences like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines.
Drawing from her experience as Nigeria’s finance minister, Okonjo-Iweala delivers in her book a revealing first-hand account and perspective on the efforts to fight corruption under the immediate past administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. Laced with anecdotes about attacks on her person and family during and since leaving government in May 2015 and collections of significant events in the anticorruption fight, the book describes how corruption endangers society. Sleaze strips society of badly needed resources for development, deprives the vast majority, rewards the idle rich, and creates a tribe of unfeeling, treacherous monsters, the author believes.
Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines is a robust portrayal of the dangers, drawbacks, and successes of the Jonathan administration’s anticorruption fight by one of the principal leaders of the fight. The sum of the argument in the book is that leading the fight against corruption in a clime like Nigeria with widespread poverty, pervasive ignorance, and strong ethno-religious cleavages is too much of a risk, but a risk worth taking for one’s country.
Okonjo-Iweala was, arguably, the one who thought up the idea of corruption fighting back when it is fought, a concept widely used in the present political and economic lexicon. Using the notorious oil subsidy scam – “one of the biggest corruption scandals in Nigeria’s history” – as a peg, she tells in her latest book the story of how a powerful cartel behind the scam she had set out to stamp out fought back with the violent cruelty, the most gruesome of which was the kidnap of her 85-year-old mother in 2012 and attempts on her life.
The fuel subsidy payments had become a huge drag on the economy, taking a staggering N1.73 trillion (33 per cent) of total net federal revenues of N5.2 trillion in 2011. That was from about N261 billion in 2006.
Okonjo-Iweala says her attempt to authenticate the subsidy claims, eliminate fraud and waste, and eventually phase out oil subsidy was what provoked the ire of the oil subsidy scammers and others that fed fat on the debilitating subsidy regime.
The former minister narrates how Jonathan himself complicated the subsidy quagmire by hurrying to remove it without adequate public enlightenment. By that very misadventure, Jonathan energised the propaganda machine of the opposition and others that disliked the idea of subsidy removal, and demonised his government in the public mind. The popular protests that followed the ugly New Year’s Day gift of fuel price hike naturally killed off the idea of oil subsidy removal.
The book also details how Okonjo-Iweala provoked the anger of state governors by insisting on transparency in revenue allocation. She says her problem began in 2004, when she commenced a revenue transparency drive – with then President Olusegun Obasanjo’s approval – to publish in newspapers the monthly allocations to the federal government, and each state and local government. The practice, which gained much popularity among the masses, was, however, disliked and disparaged by those who profiteered from the hitherto opaque revenue allocation regime. The monthly revenue allocation publication was eventually stopped in 2006, when she resigned as finance minister. That was during her first term as finance minister (2003-2006).
Okonjo-Iweala continued to be at odds with the governors in her second term as Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy from August 2011 to May 2015. The problem this time, she says, was her attempt to build the Excess Crude Account, which was perceived as an affront by the governors. This was despite the fact that about N22 billion saved through the ECA between 2004 and 2006 helped Nigeria to ward off recession during the global financial and economic crisis of 2008/2009.
Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines classifies the forms of corruption Okonjo-Iweala confronted during her six-year tenure as finance minister into three, borrowing from William Dorintinsky and Shilpa Pradhan. They are grand corruption, which is the large-scale diversion of public resources to private use, like in the case of the subsidy scandal; political corruption, which is influence peddling on resource allocation to projects, directing resources to special projects that pander to the politician’s narrow interest at society’s expense, as happened in the cases of budget manipulation; and administrative corruption, which involves the misappropriation and misuse of public funds.
She says her decision to serve in the Jonathan government and, indeed, lead efforts to fight corruption at the time were anchored on one fundamental belief: “If Nigeria was to fight corruption successfully, it needed not just to arrest and prosecute people – which was vital – but also to build the institutions, processes, and systems that enhance transparency and make corrupt practices more difficult in the first place.”
Looking back in hindsight on her tenure, Okonjo-Iweala writes in her book, “Many of my detractors and attackers were corrupt politicians and civil servants and other vested interests comfortable with the old-fashioned, opaque ways of doing business in Nigeria.”
She believes the media attacks on her lately are only an extension of those she faced while in government and the handiwork of different faces of the same people – enemies of transparency and good governance.
However, despite Okonjo-Iweala’s account of a worthy anticorruption fight and the attempts by the corrupt elements to fight back, her whole attitude to the plots and attacks on her, as presented in the book, even when criminal intents are clearly imputed, has been less than serious. She refers to an instance when a group of oil dealers met and decided to maim her but fails to state efforts by the government to investigate the issue and prosecute those involved.
“The meeting was held by a group of oil importers and marketers to whom the federal government ‘owed’ money,” she states. “It was held in the house of the chair and owner of one of the oil marketing companies.”
The woman in question is known, yet Okonjo-Iweala feels content with simply calling up the lead plotter and telling her they had been busted. That reaction seems too perfunctory for such a grievous plot, which is a crime under Nigerian laws. She could have taken the matter to the fullest extent of the law and avoided the impression that corruption in the administration under which she served was a mere “family affair”. Following through with the lead at her disposal could also have helped in efforts to curb the impunity of the corrupt and unscrupulous elite.
Besides, the book could have been made grander if the chapters had pictures from the era being written about.
Those are, however, minor distractions to the grand accounts and ideas for bettering the Nigerian society contained in Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines.
The book is an excellent resource for both government and citizens, especially those keen on playing their parts in the collective task of making Nigeria a better place.