Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Critique of NOI

was sent this article by a friend. It's an interesting counterbalance to my praise from a couple of weeks ago:

Hagiography and Patronage, By Moses Ebe Ochonu

It's funny how power can transform otherwise secure and self-assured individuals into paranoid cravers of empty compliments and condescending attention. Reading Paul Valley's interview with Nigeria's finance minister, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, in the Independent (UK) of May 16, 2006, one is struck by how vain and insecure the woman has become since tasting the trappings of the Abuja power game.
So Abujanized has she become that it now seems that she has created her own make-believe vision of Nigeria. In this self-absorbed world of hers, everything is going well with Nigeria and critics are either disgruntled losers in the ongoing "reform" or hateful agents of the influential losers. In this world, there can be no independent, patriotic, and principled dissent; dissenters and critics are simply jealous and self-interested hirelings out to get her or to scuttle her "reforms."
It was instructive to read the feast of redundant mutual adulation that was passed off as an interview. Mr. Paul Valley lobbed softball questions at Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, making sure to sprinkle the questions with generous amounts of highfalutin praise. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala returned the favor with giddy affirmations of the interviewer's friendly opinions disguised as questions. It was clear that Mr. Valley had been fed a diet of pro-regime claims as he laced and prefaced his leading questions with preconceived informational backgrounds. That a brilliant woman of Okonjo-Iweala's caliber allowed herself to be so patronized by such an uncouth agent of hagiography is telling.
The title of the interview, "The Woman Who Has the Power to Change Africa," gave away its intent. The notion that an individual-man or woman-has the capacity to change a whole continent is as bankrupt as it is patronizing, and if Mrs Iweala was half as modest as a recent BBC story says she is, she would not only have rejected the messianic connotations inherent in such a notion but would also have interrogated its sincerity. It is a notion steeped in the racist and reductive idea of a single, undifferentiated Africa-the notion of Africa as one simple beleaguered country needing salvation.
That an otherwise intelligent and intellectually vigilant woman would sit through, tolerate, and even reward Mr. Valley's patronizing and condescending questions and attitude indicates the extent to which she has become accustomed to the Abuja system. In this system, empty praise singing and flattery trump reasoned critique and vigorous dissent.
She comes across in the interview as politically insecure, insular, and desperately in need of Western validation. Mr. Paul Valley gave her plenty of validation but by overdoing it, he exposed her to ridicule and revealed the agenda-laden underbelly of what was presented as a neutral journalistic encounter. His questions were designed to make her look good, to give her an opportunity to toot her own horn and to lash out at the enemies of "reform."
But Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's responses were far more counterproductive than Mr. Valley's questions. They were repetitively self-congratulatory, lacking in self-critique and modest self-appraisal. It is her responses, more than Mr. Valley's patronage, that makes this interview an exercise in self-exposure. Let us examine what she had to say.
Mrs Iweala claims that the five targets of her "reform" package have either been reached or are being pursued vigorously. On each of those five points, there are grounds to doubt her confident chest-thumping. While the publishing of revenue allocations to states and local governments have promoted a measure of accountability and transparency, the anti-corruption fight has since been compromised by the political scheming of an insecure and paranoid administration. This is so well known and the laughable hypocrisies and selectivity of the anti-corruption campaign so well documented that one does not need to dwell on it.
She mentioned public expenditure and public service reforms. This is a euphemism for a policy designed to please the IMF and World Bank, which holds that African civil bureaucracies are over-bloated and that substantial savings can be made by drastically reducing them. The Nigerian government deceptively calls its satisfaction of this IMF prescription right-sizing. This policy has seen thousands of regular civil servants lose their jobs while the size of government has actually bloated. This government has more political appointees who are a drain on the public treasury than any other government in the history of the country. We are yet to be told how much money has been saved from the massive reduction of the federal civil service, but it now seems as though the thousands of low- and mid-level civil servants who lost their jobs were sacrificed to accommodate the growing expenditure associated with this government's idle army of political appointees. This type of cosmetic self-defeatism has become a hallmark of this government.
The debt repayment triumphalism is another overblown rhetoric. From information emerging about recent borrowing activities by the federal and state governments, especially the news that we have just borrowed $1 billion from China to finance the modification of our rail project when we supposedly have over $30 billion in foreign reserve, it is clear that we may simply have wiped our debt slate clean in order to borrow more to fill up more foreign private bank accounts.
Okonjo-Iweala talked about macro-economic stability. This is a fancy term which means very little in terms of quotidian improvements in the lives of Nigerians. Yes, some macro-economic indicators have improved, but this has had only a modest impact on the economic rating, investment worthiness, and credit profile of Nigeria. Under the weight of increased corruption, collapsing infrastructure, and contrived political instability, this modest impact has not translated into real benefits for the country. Besides, I am not entirely sure that it is wise to leave domestic needs unmet and to neglect deteriorating economic conditions and micro-economic problems in pursuit of largely abstract, paper prosperity in the form of healthy macro-economic statistics. A wise government does not neglect the welfare of its own people in order to meet some abstract macro-economic targets.
Her fourth point-governance and institution building-is such a clich├ęd slogan that it is perhaps not worthy of a lengthy response. If anything has been a victim of the political shenanigans of this administration, it is governance. As for institution-building, I wonder how Mrs Iweala could, with a straight face, proclaim this as one of her achievements when we have seen a steady subordination of institutions to personal loyalties and ideological conformity.
The last item in her "reform" package is accelerated privatization and liberalization. This is another hollow policy that has resulted, we now know, in the fleecing of the nation's strategic assets and have enriched and financially empowered a few administration insiders and friends. Its shoddy implementation, which has been characterized by cronyism, favoritism, the granting of private monopolies, and outright corruption, has resulted in the institution of what one may call clique capitalism.
Perhaps the most self-serving claim Mrs Okonjo-Iweala makes in the interview is her argument that her "reform" has become so accepted that its rhetoric has now become the referential index against which national political conversations are conducted. She points to the recent Third Term debate as an example of this supposedly heart-warming trend.
It is true that there is a burgeoning practice of using the on-going "reforms" as a point of reference in discussions about political succession. But this trend is neither heart-warming nor indicative of the acceptance of the "reforms." If anything, it speaks to the bankruptcy of political debates among the Nigerian elite, which is a very depressing phenomenon. It is lamentable that even those who opposed the Third Term power grab attempt bought into the administration's ruse about sustaining current "reforms" instead of rejecting or transcending it. They agreed that the "reforms" needed to be sustained but insisted that someone besides Mr. Obasanjo should do this. The rhetoric of reform was in fact deployed by administration hacks to dignify the case for a Third Term for Mr. Obasanjo, and it is sad that, as commendable as their stance was, the anti-Third Term politicians could not see this for what it was.
It is disingenuous on the part of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala to claim that her "reform" has been widely accepted by Nigerians. When did she conduct a poll or a referendum on it? When did we have a national debate on whether the current economic trajectory is what we desire? Putting a populist gloss on her reforms may impress clueless and impressionable outsiders but Nigerians-the object and subjects of these "reforms-have not been impressed. Of what good is a reform if it does not lead to tangible improvements in the lives of regular Nigerians? I hope that the honorable minister has not gotten caught up in the empty sloganeering of proclaiming reform for reform's sake or of articulating reform and its supposed benefits in purely esoteric and abstract terms. The elevation of "reform" to the status of an overarching and sacrosanct doctrine of government has already insulated Mr. Obasanjo's economic team from the fact that, on the ground, standards of living are falling and costs of living are rising for most Nigerians.
Some of her claims about economic success are so downright ridiculous they should be dismissed with common economic sense. She claims, for instance, that one of the achievements of her economic team is that $3 billion is now being remitted by Nigerians living abroad. She attributes this increase in remittances to a new confidence in the Nigerian economy. Common economic reasoning tells one that if Nigerians abroad are remitting more money to their relatives in Nigeria this is irrefutable evidence that conditions are getting worse and that Nigerians are increasingly relying on the generosity of their relatives abroad to survive. How this can be advanced as an achievement beats me.
One of the off-putting moments of self-righteous haughtiness in the interview came when Mr. Valley asked the minister about the dollar salary controversy which threatened her tenure in its early days. She went through the song and dance of burdening us with the supposedly uncommon financial responsibilities she had to shoulder before becoming a minister, making sure to inform us that she and her husband did very well and had a comfortable life of luxuries and obligations. Not only should these intimate details have been kept away from uninterested others, it should not have been invoked as a defense against the charge of greed which greeted the dollar salary revelation. I am writing here as someone who, during the internet debate on the issue, actually supported her right to be paid a fair salary commensurate with her previous earning and big enough to sustain her cultivated lifestyle. I objected to her being paid in dollars, not to the amount that she was being paid.
However, reading her comments on the issue, it is quite clear to me that Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's does not deserve the sympathetic understanding that I had accorded her. As she did during the debate on the issue, she resorted, in this interview, to the rhetoric of sacrifice and self-denial as a strategy for securing public sympathy. The whinny story about her child suspending college to enable her take this low-paying job is beyond the pale. The language of sacrifice will only resonate with those who are unfamiliar with the cost-benefit calculations of a government appointment. Far from being a sacrifice, a government appointment is an investment.
In the United States, people routinely leave the private sector for government appointments. Such political appointees earn a fraction of what they used to earn in the private sector. But no one sympathizes with them on their choice to serve, nor do they solicit sympathy. The reason is that everyone knows that serving in the government boosts one's resume, enlarges one's circle of influence and connections, buys one some goodwill, and gives one a leverage to secure more lucrative private sector jobs when one's tenure expires. Taking a pay cut to serve in government is therefore a self-interested investment that will yield returns in the future. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala is therefore not making a sacrifice by serving as minister even if it appears that way. Her service will position her for bigger things in the future in the private or public sector.
Finally, the minister went to shockingly disgusting lengths to malign the critics of her "reform" and of her special dollar salary. She used terms like "hired internet bloggers" and "anti-reform elements" to describe them. They were, she tells us, out to sully her name internationally. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala has obviously assimilated into the culture of power in Abuja; she even engages in Abuja-speak. The imputation of insincere and pecuniary motives to her critics, some of whom I know to be have been motivated purely by patriotic instincts, is the typical Abuja politician's reaction to stinging criticism. Such impulsive contempt for criticism and dissent betrays an attempt to self-righteously monopolize patriotism, to demonize opponents, and to encourage the cult of personality. Far from being enemies, haters, and malicious "anti-reform people" Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's critics may be her best friends since they are the ones who tell her what should inspire in her some introspection and self-critique.
I don't understand what is so sacred about the ongoing "reform" that critics of it are regularly described in very uncharitable terms. Such defensiveness cannot be a good sales pitch for the "reform"; on the contrary, it may suggest that the "reformers" are not very secure in their "reform" hence the resort to personal attacks as a way of deflecting legitimate questions and concerns about it.
Mr. Valley's interview has done more damage to the honorable minister's reputation than she realizes. Ironically, this damage stems from the fact that the interview is too good a public relations job. And if something is too good to be true, it probably is.

29 comments:

mw 10:07 am  

I've always held on to my own small sense of disquiet about the Honourable Minister of Finance anyway. And she wears the most inelegant headties I've ever seen. For a Nigerian woman to be so clueless about headties, shows there's a 'comma' to her somewhere.

Anonymous,  10:33 am  

Wow Moses....so what exactly would you do as finance minister? - BK

Anonymous,  11:32 am  

MW, this is so uncalled for. what does headdress have to do with the woman's performance. Maybe she is so 'so clueless about headties' because she has more important thing to think about and focus her mind. We african woman are so obessessed with our looks. I expected from you MW. She might be suspect as a f minister, but lets not judge her on fashion statement. Woman have been so judeged like this for centuries.
AB

ayoke 11:50 am  

Thank you, Anon.

MW, your comment took away all seriousness from a very intuitive article.

Sisi,  11:53 am  

@ MW - She is ibo, what to you expect?

mw 11:57 am  

Let it not be said that I'm for seriousness only.

Note the 'and' that begins the 2nd sentence in my last post. In addition to the headtie thing (which I've noticed many a time) the main point here is: I hold on to my small sense of disquiet concerning the persona in question.

I hope I'm allowed to have such.

Nkem 11:58 am  

There are too many things to comment on, but at the risk of turning a comment into a full blown riposte... Mr Chonu shouldn't be naive enough to ignore the context in which the interview was conducted. It wasn't a necessarily a back slapping exercise for NOI, but for Bono (who guest edited the Indy that day) and could claim some credit for African debt relief.

There are obviously questions over the wisdom of borrowing $1b from China, but having $30b in federal reserves is not a justification of those questions. People might say that running an economy is like running a household, that's amusing but slightly disingenuous.

It is understandable that she'd be politically insecure and in need of Western validation. If her "reforms" will be scuppered, she has a right to feel politically insecure. Besides, she did say that she reckoned the changes her team had brought in would outlast her term. This doesn't sound insecure to me. It is also understandable that she needs Western validation, these are the people she has to please for Nigeria to achieve all the investment indicators.

It might be a good idea for Mr Ochonu to interview the minister, mano a womano, and probe her on the so called reforms. Should be a "frank exchange of views".

mw 11:59 am  

Sisi, just seen your post. I would suggest we don't take this th ethnic way. I know lots of elegant Igbo women.

Nkem 12:02 pm  

Sisi. What does being Igbo have to do with NOI's apparent inablity to tie a headtie. I resent that comment. It's a rude racist/tribalist statement, and I ask you retract it. Please.

Anonymous,  12:13 pm  

Folks, I am sure Moses has a point he is trying to make somewhere in his article, but he loses his way a little and comes accross as slightly bitter and cynical. I fear he doth protest too much.

He makes one really valid point: that it is too early to count as an unqualified success, the economic reform of one of Africa's most notable cesspits of corruption. He is absolutely correct - we must not, as a people, take our foot off the gas, nor our eyes off the ultimate prize: a growing economy and an equitable society.

The bear fact is that the structural reforms have not started touching the ordinary Nigerian. Given however that it can take up to 5 years for economic policy to filter down to the grassroots - I think it may be too soon to pass judgement. It is clear, however that a good start has been made.

It pleases me no end that Moses has not a single substansive accusation of corruption or mis-appropraition against Ngozi. All his criticisms are on her style, not her substance.

That, for me makes her about the best success story to come out of Nigerian politics for a long, long time.

Anon

aihamme delot 12:39 pm  

Nigerians dont deal with criticism well and that stems from the fact that we're used to putting up with rubbish; so when someone thinks they're doing a half decent job, they recon noone has the right to tell them they could always do a half decent job a bit better; because there are thousands of lowlives not even doing any jobs in the first place.
On the flip side, Abuja speak is something every Nigerian politician has to unfortunately learn...there are too many people more interested in pursuing other peoples downfalls (haters basically) and power than actual progress, hence critisicm (more often than not - destructive) is too easily branded about before any though is given into it.
Its not so much a catch 22, but a case of too many people criticising others for the wrong reasons hence those that do have genuine concerns are also branded enemies of progress. she's obviously reeling from attacks from those after her scalp and like you said has become quite paranoid - but then again, who in Abuja isnt?

ayoke 12:48 pm  

Sisi, at the risk of turning a comment into a full blown riposte, what other stereotypes do you hold?

St Antonym 3:14 pm  

Ochonu is too splenetic to be taken seriously.

Someone can go back to his article and count the number of negative adjectives.

As our people say, handshake wey pass elbow don become another thing. Analysis cannot begin from a position of such deranged enmity. A case in point is taking Okonjo-Iweala to task for the title of the interview. Since when does an interviewee have editorial control over the title of a piece?

Of course, that's not to suggest that substantive criticism of Mme Minister cannot be made. It can and it should, but Ochonu does it in the wrongest manner possible.

Anonymous,  3:53 pm  

I have just read the interview itself, having posted earlier.

All I can say is - shame on you, Moses. The woman is open, charming, intelligent....almost sexy (in a Harvard MBA kinda way)....

The best bit of the interview is when the interviewer asks about reforms continuing after she and OBJ are gone. She asks - "do you know the President of Switzerland?", interviewer: "No".

QED. Beautiful.

Anon

Chxta 4:06 pm  

The guy who wrote that stuff ovbiously has an ax to grind that he isn't letting on. Let's face it, (and especially when you compare her with her predecessors) the lady has done a good job, so we should give applause where it is due...

Morountodun 4:23 pm  

When I saw the title of the article I thought it was a critique of the Nation of Islam, LOL. MW, I once read an article about Einstein that once it had dealt with his theory of relativity alluded to him having a wardrobe full of the same items of clothing. So NOI's lack of dress sense might actually be clues to signs of brilliance...

Tunji,  6:05 pm  

Ouch.. I've just read Moses' excoriating repost. Beyond his gratuitous venting, he got one thing right-"the self-referenced universe" that is Abuja.
In the well known Nigerian tradition of skewered political punditry, it has always been easier to skewer personalities, curse the darkness instead of providing light. In all of this Moses, I see no burning bush, I see no encounter with light. We very often underestimate the complexities and the improbabilities of the Nigerian state. Say what you may about the sister's foibles, but you have to give her props for sticking her neck out and trying to do something about that infuriating quandry known as Nigeria. There is more to be done, lots more to be sure, but at least for the first time, we can see the footprints and the direction of new vistas..eh hem..promised land anyone?

the flying monkeys 6:41 pm  

It would be nice if the article in question to which MW is referring attracted the volume of comments that an individual personal opinion has. The very nature of a BLOG enshrines freedom of speech. Should MW not be allowed her freedom?

In a democracy, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What many people find damaging is equally damaging to MW, because it appears she is not entitled to make such an opinion. Is this really correct?

Freedom to all!

Btw: Jeremy thanks for this post.

My Talking Beginnings 7:34 pm  

At first i found sisi's comment funny considering the stereotype, but later realised it's context. Nkem has a point, we really musn't carry on with segregationist attitude supposedly inherent in us human beings. It has to stop, afterall aren't we all preaching a better Nigeria?

Anonymous,  11:43 pm  

Please retract the Ibo comment! Very Insulting!

Sisi,  9:14 am  

A thousand apologies to all who took offence to my statement about NOI's headtie and her being Ibo (she is actually Delta-Ibo I am told).

I think here I should go into the why of my earlier remark, but I really don't have the energy.

Anonymous,  11:45 am  

Sisi, there can be no explanation for your earlier comments. So it is good that you have apologised and retreated. We all have to keep an eye on the ugly monster of ethnicity from raising its head. So apologies accepted and i forgive you

AB

Sisi,  3:18 pm  

Really I do not see the harm in what I have said. Ibo women can't tie headtie end of story, just like yoruba people cannot but cook oily/watery soup. Does the fact that NOI can't tie headtie remove from the fact that she is an intelligent woman? no, likewise a yoruba woman is no less a good cook, even if her stew/soup is stereotyped as being watery/oily.

You all are up in arms like I called her a nigger or used some other nasty slur to describe her.

Anonymous,  3:26 pm  

And Nigerians are all, without exception, corrupt 419 people, everyone knows that, of course.

That doesn't stop them being nice people - abi, Sisi?

Anon

ayoke 4:20 pm  

Ha, ha, ha! I can't believe this.

I've been mum but please just this last comment:

So, ALL Ibo women can't tie headtie? And ALL Yoruba women cook oily/watery soup?

Sisi, let it go. I beg of you. Just let it go...

Anonymous,  10:49 pm  

sisi oge,

yes, let it go. it could get worse.

Anonymous,  11:21 pm  

To the last 'anonymous', we don't know that 'sisi' is the same as 'sisi oge'.

Please, people...

nigeria, what's new 9:50 am  

That Ibo comment was quite silly and I feel offended by it. Sisi, you may be thinking it juvenile but you should be really sorry for unwittingly insulting others. Your apology is does make up for the hurt that you have caused.

Given that NgoziOW was subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign to raise more funds, over hyped media headline is not the way to help Africa, it is the way products are sold. It is a shame that our best is pretty much ordinary even though her achievements are quite outstanding for the region. Big fish is a dirty small bowl.

Monef 12:11 am  

It is important to recognize that there is no precedent for what Ngozi has managed to acheive, I choose to believe that now that the bar has been raised (even if there are those who don't consider it high enough!) people will no longer be satisfied with mediocrity, and the economy will continue to grow from strength to strength.

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