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Oby Ezekwesili & The Challenge of Nigeria

Oby Ezekwesili, one of the titans of the Olusegun Obasanjo government, is a vastly promoted woman.  Once, not long ago, she had access to the ears of one African leader.  Today, as the Vice-President for the Africa Region at the World Bank, she has access to the ears of every African leader. 

My concern is whether she can count on the ears of her own national leader. 

Mrs. Ezekwesili, who is in her mid-40s, represents the new African woman: fortified by a good education, undistracted by fear, ready to demonstrate that things can get done.  Others that readily come to mind include Kenya’s Nobel Peace Laureate, Wangari Muta Maathai; and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who left the growing smoke-and-mirrors that was government in Nigeria to become a Managing Director at The Bank.  There are also Joy Phumaphi, the former Botswana Minister of Health, who was one of the brains behind the seminal Commission for HIV/AIDS & Governance in Africa and is now Vice-President for Human Development at The Bank; and Asha-Rose Migiro, the former Tanzania Foreign Minister who is now the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General. 

Each of these women has a growing international following, and I hope that the African mass media, as well as Africa’s civic and educational institutions, are working hard to listen to them.  To Mrs. Ezekwesili, however, falls the immediate and intriguing task of World Bank policy on our complicated continent.  I am confident she will be a success; but will she make an impact in her own country? 

Giving how involved she was in the government of Olusegun Obasanjo, in which her last, brief portfolio was Minister for Education, I do not know whether she left for The Bank feeling as though set free from a prison cell, or hurting that she did not have time to rip down the entire jailhouse.

Still, she knows Nigeria deeply.  She knew Nigeria well long before President Obasanjo assumed office as an elected leader.  Speaking at a Havard Business School seminar in 2000, Mrs. Ezekwesili pointed out that in a situation when people lack the desire to make laws work, those laws do not stand a chance.  "In Nigeria, every law we need to be a transparent nation is in the books,” she said.  “But every avenue to break those laws exists in the mind.”

The inference was that we often chose those avenues, and she recalled how graft undermined the much-vaunted virility of the ‘Asian Tigers’ in the 1990s.  She seized the opportunity to call for efficiency in the business of government.  ‘Good governance,’ she was saying, was simply not enough.

Several years after the former Due Process champion got a chance to contribute where it really matters in Nigeria, she is in an unenviable place as far as that country goes.  Her current brief is not Nigeria, but as a national who is conscious of its potential—a former official who helped construct the transparency standards that the Obasanjo administration often bragged about and an outsider who had the unusual chance to open the engine and look under the hood—the opportunities we are frittering away must fill her with sighs.  

And yet, all that was before the current global economic crisis.  This fork on the road is of great moment to every nation, but it is of particular concern to Nigerians who understand how easily our country can react poorly or indecisively, and then leave our advancement to pay the price.  As Nigerians have already observed, our government’s first response was to wave away the crisis as something that belonged only to other people.

In any event, Mrs. Ezekwesili is now involved with an even more complicated challenge than before she took up her assignment, and nations such as Nigeria are likely to make her a frequent visitor to her local pharmacy, looking for migraine medication.   Since—unlike her—my principal concern is Nigeria, I write this particular commentary because my national leaders need to hear some of the things Mrs. Ezekwesili has been saying in recent times about how Africa should respond to the crisis. 
Last March, in a visit to Ghana, she announced that the World Bank would provide up to US$1.2 billion in interest-free loans to that country over the next three years.
 “It is obvious that the government and people of [Ghana] have been making tremendous efforts to lift themselves and future generations out of the vicious cycle of poverty and hardship.”

Mrs. Ezekwesili also announced that the Bank had launched a landmark initiative that challenges civil society organizations and other citizens’ groups to help deepen transparency and accountability by monitoring the implementation of Bank-funded projects in the country.
I was pleased to hear about The Bank’s engagement with Ghana, as consideration for their sticking with the straight and narrow.  But I am not sure she will find either occasion or justification in Nigeria to commend our anti-poverty plans.

Of equal importance, I am not sure Abuja would be pleased to hear about any World Bank encouragement of civil society’s transparency and accountability efforts in the country.  And yet, if any country needed work on either front, it is Nigeria. 

In an article, “Dealing with the Global Economic and Financial Storm,” published last month, she warned that the economic crisis could become a full-blown political and social crisis.  “This is a time when African governments must engage their citizens in an open dialogue about the challenges ahead and the difficult options for dealing with them,” she said, stressing that citizens must figure in any solution.
She called for a sound management of public finances as being critical to a faster recovery, and called on African leaders to avoid populist choices that would leave their people even more vulnerable in the longer run.
She further advocated the scrapping of subsidies that benefit Africans who do not need them, in favour of those that would better help the poor, and cautioned against turning back from market-based reforms.  “Without growth there can be no sustainable poverty alleviation,” she wrote.
This position followed the same one she had made while attending the Africa Union Summit in Addis Ababa in February.  Speaking with journalists in 21 other African countries (I cannot confirm if Nigeria was one of them), who were connected by video-conference, she urged governments to build more capable states; commit to competent civil servants who demonstrate integrity, and tackle inefficiencies.
Her conference followed the appeal to donor nations by the President of the World Bank, Mr. Robert Zoellick, to devote 0.7 percent of the amount of their stimulus packages to a Vulnerability Fund for Africa.
Mrs. Ezekwesili stressed the importance of:
•    Improving adherence to transparency and accountability mechanisms;
•    Ensuring that revenue from natural resources are invested in sustainable poverty alleviation programs;
•    Promoting pro-poor growth;
•    Countries diversifying their economies beyond non-renewable sources of wealth;
With particular reference to education, she drew attention to the importance of tertiary education in building Africa’s readiness to compete in the era of globalization. “The citizens of Africa are the continent’s most valuable asset,” she noted.
Her response to a Zambian journalist is instructive, particularly if you are a Nigerian leader:   “[They] must articulate a development strategy and make policy choices that would guarantee prosperity for ‘a Zambia without copper,’” she said. 
She also called on citizens’ groups, the media and parliaments to be more involved in holding governments and donors accountable.
I think that Mrs. Ezekwesili’s head and heart are in the right place.  The question is whether Nigerian leaders and peoples are listening.  Only this week, the World Bank Country Director in Nigeria, Dr. Onno Ruhl, said that as many as 18 million Nigerians would fall below the poverty line in 2009. 
This is a shame, and it is easy for people in Yar’Adua’s government to blame it on the recession, but it is not.  Nobody can point to any period of committed and sustained economic management in our country since independence, and Yar’Adua is our most irresponsible government yet.
But the fault is not all Nigeria’s.  I think the current international relations framework is broken and can barely support development.  The concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity, by which bad governments barricade themselves in power, must have been even more so following World War II, and as we fought colonialism.
Evidently, they will always be alluring as long as one does not stray from the political realm.  In the economic realm, however, particularly when we talk about development, those concepts are an effective protection of corrupt and indolent governments, not the people.  This explains why ordinary Nigerians have so little to show for nearly 40 years of “oil wealth” and funds poured into the country by donors and development institutions. 
There has to be a more realistic way.  In the context of external development financing, the United Nations ought to revisit such concepts as sovereignty.  Perhaps the Organization should declare a renewable Development Decade during which countries participating in certain multilaterally-negotiated frameworks such as the Millennium Development Goals—and accepting external donor resources as a result—agree that a percentage of those resources automatically go to pre-defined projects or schemes in which certain segments of society participate on an equal basis as that government. 
Unless there is a new arrangement of this nature, it will be difficult to break the cycles of poverty and graft in countries such as Nigeria.  Unless there is a new arrangement of this nature, many of the international efforts at helping such countries will continue to enrich the same elite that is responsible for perpetuating their underdevelopment in the first place.
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