I recently watched with great pity a video of Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala giving a keynote speech at the 5th Annual African Business Conference at Harvard Business School in February of 2013. She spoke on Redefining Africa: The Emergence of a New African Story. As is customary with her, she used all the usual macro and micro economic terms that dazzle the untrained ears. Watch: http://youtu.be/y6xPhD2sjik
During the question and answer session, attendees, many of whom considered her a rock star, asked her questions about accountability and transparency. One participant pointedly asked her about Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili’s charge that $67 billion dollars was mismanaged by Presidents Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan. Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala stated that she did not want to be drawn into that argument. “You don’t want to embark on a debate based on the wrong premise. Do you?” she asked the audience. “I don’t want to enter into dialogues that are not based on accurate information,” she continued in her defense, stating that the Jonathan administration has produced accurate information on Foreign Reserves for all to see.
“There is a very strong penchant in Nigeria, for people to just throw numbers any which way they like with very little regard for accuracy,” she said. “And somehow the larger the better. You know and whether it is correct or not, nobody cares. Even when you are putting out the accurate information they don’t even want to believe. So I don’t engage in fruitless debates that are not based on accurate information.”
Now this is the same Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who, in a pushback to the charge that corruption was endemic in Nigeria, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that, “99.9% of them (Nigerians) are honest and hardworking citizens...”
At the Boston event, the former World Bank executive went on to say that she believed in accountability and talked about how she had been publishing relevant information for people to utilize in holding their government accountable. Several times she asked the audience, “How many of you have even seen this? … How many of you have ever seen that? … How many of you know that?” These highly educated Harvard types were silent. Then Ngozi, out of frustration said, “Well, you know, the frustration is that many of the things we are doing people don’t see or know about. You can take a horse to the water but you can’t force it to drink.” At one point, she said, “I’ve done the best I can.”
Political commentators are not paid to sympathize with public officials. They are paid to scrutinize them.
Some readers often ask for criticism to be constructive. By extension, they demand that the right to point out problems comes with the responsibility to offer solutions. The truth is that there is one simple solution to any problem; adopt the best practice.
In this day and age, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The best practice is out there for those who wish to have it. Our problem is that we often fear the best practice because it requires getting off our comfort zone and doing a little hard work. Unfortunately for us, the fear of the best practice is the beginning of mediocrity.
Imagine this! At exactly 10 in the morning, Mr. Reuben Abati briskly walks into a packed Press Room at Aso Rock Villa with a yellow folder in his hands. TV stations take a break from regular programming to connect to their feed at Aso Rock. Aso Rock website and online media all plug in to livestream. Abati heads straight to the podium, opens his briefing note, scans the room and says, “Good Morning.” He recites the activities of the president for the day. He expresses the president’s concerns that center on the issues of the moment, closes his folder and says, “I will now take your questions.”
With TV cameras rolling, NTA, ITA, Channels, State TV stations, he pans through the room and calls on the first reporter to ask his question. He goes from one reporter to another; newspaper reporters, radio reporters, TV reporters, online reporters, bloggers and all. He calls them by name. When they ask a question that he does not have an answer to, he tells the reporter that he will check and get back to him or her. One hour after, he ends the press briefing. Reporters put back their notes in their bags and head out to write their stories of the day.
Imagine this repeated once a week. Imagine this done once every day. When Abati is not available, his deputy will step in. Just imagine!
Here are things that would change instantly. Abati would have a daily opportunity to articulate the government position for the nation. He would spend time preparing for the daily briefing. Because of the nature of the exchange, Abati could leverage the need for the media to know to his advantage- the president would be compelled to provide him more information else he would be ridiculed by the press. Most importantly, Abati would have less need to say, “NOTED” as he did during my interview with him last week. http://youtu.be/SmZj3WV8bZA
On the part of the press, knowing that the citizens are watching, reporters would ask serious questions knowing that their reputation and the reputation of their media organization is on the line. Because the viewing public is following, the reporters will remember to follow up on the stories that their media outlets have published. Everybody will be on their toes, including those without toes.
Do this for six months and you will be amazed at how smarter everybody will appear; the reporter, the press spokesman, and the people. And even the government. But most importantly, the people will get a glimpse of what it means for a government to be transparent and accountable.
Now imagine President Goodluck Jonathan doing the same things once every three months. And as Abati ‘noted’ in my interview with him, the Facebook president will take questions from Nigerians online once every six months. It may be rough at the beginning, but with time he will begin to master the art. He will learn to banter with the media. And most importantly, he will get a good understanding of the concerns of the Nigerian people. And who knows, maybe, if he is frank and forthright, the people may reward him with their sympathy and understanding.
More than anyone else, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala ought to know that just like a heap of stones does not make a house, a pile of data does not make an intelligent narrative. Imagine Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala holding a press conference each month in the glare of the citizens of Nigeria, taking questions from reporters on what she has been doing as the Minister of Finance and the Coordinating Minister of the Economy. Questions like, “Madam, you said that you publish how much money goes to each tier of the government, so how much does President Jonathan get each month as the security vote? Who else in the government gets a security vote? Do you get security votes too? Do you know how much each governor gets as security vote each month? What are they doing with this money? What is the difficulty abolishing that practice?”
But Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will not. The whole echelon of the Nigerian government will not square up with the people because they have a lot to hide. Instead they prefer the short cut- induce the press to produce flattering stories about them.
And then, they wonder why the people do not trust them. In Okonjo-Iweala’s words, “There’s so much mistrust of government in our countries… in Nigeria there is a great deal of lack of trust. The social contract between the people and government is fragile.”
Madam, you fix the mistrust by adopting best practices – across the board. Not by throwing up your hands in the air while sitting tight where you are and saying, “I’ve done the best I can.” Meanwhile, there's one option you've overlooked, Madam- quitting.
And about that horse, if the horse is thirsty and still does not drink the water, check very well, the water is contaminated.