What is the record of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO’s new Director General?

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Photo: WTO/Jay Louvion/Wikimedia Commons)

For a continent often defined to the outside world by corrupt politicians, dictators and the notorious internet scammers, a success story in any legitimate endeavour elicits celebration. This explains the outpour of joy across Nigeria and Africa since the announcement of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a development economist, as the Director-General designate of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

In 2003, under the Obasanjo Presidency, Harvard-trained Ngozi left her position as World Bank Vice President to become Nigeria’s finance minister. Following a cabinet reshuffle in 2006, she briefly served as Minister of foreign affairs after which she left Nigeria. She returned in 2011 under the Goodluck Jonathan government as finance minister but with an expanded portfolio as the Coordinating Minister of the economy.

By March 1st, she would not only be the first African to assume the position but also the first woman – a fact which is considered “a big step for women” everywhere but particularly in a deeply patriarchal region wherein many parts, women are to be “seen, not heard”. For the private investors on the continent, an African at the summit of world trade gives hope of much-needed reforms to fix the trade imbalance between the continent and the industrialised world. Further afield, her story especially being a black woman is also likely to inspire many in the diaspora, as well as civil right movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM).

The alluring story of her rise and impressive resume notwithstanding, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist neo-liberal economist with a brutal legacy in Nigeria. Her anti-poor economic policies, disguised as reforms, tightened the imperialist grip on Nigeria’s economy and by implication deepened social inequality and mass poverty in the midst of abundant human and material resources.

This significant detail has for obvious reason been largely ignored by pundits and the capitalist media in their effusive praises. But for the workers’ movements, civil society activists and the students’ movement, which battled her policies for nearly a decade, this cannot be forgotten.

Debt relief or a clever heist?

Her first significant ‘achievement’ as Finance Minister under the Obasanjo government was to negotiate debt relief with the Paris Club of usurious creditors in 2005. This so-called debt relief, which is celebrated today, was actually a high-wired heist of Nigeria’s wealth for which Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and President Obasanjo ought to face public trial at a working people’s tribunal should there ever be one someday.

This deal which had all the trappings of a wire fraud involved Nigeria gifting the Paris Club a whopping sum of $12.4billion which the creditors had “graciously” agreed to take as settlement payment so they could write off Nigeria’s longstanding debt to the club of creditors. Meanwhile, the original loan for which this payment was required to write off was only $13.5billion. To make things worse, Nigeria had already paid nothing less than $42billion to the Club in the period leading up to 2005. So essentially, Nigeria ended up paying a total sum of $54.4billion for a loan of $13.5billion in order to enjoy a token and fictitious debt relief of $18billion!

But the true objective, which was barely disguised behind the contradictory figures that the economic wizards of capitalism bandied about to force this deal on Nigerians, was the fact that after a spell of military rule in the 1990s, which witnessed various economic sanctions by Western powers, the dawn of civil rule in 1999 presented an opportunity for imperialism to go for a slice of Nigeria’s oil wealth. This they could only achieve through Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who acted more like an “economic hit-man” and a pliant and pro-imperialist Obasanjo government which needed to be in the good books of imperialism to stay in power. Not surprising, the debt relief was tied to an agreement signed on October 17 2005 which allowed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to monitor and dictate Nigeria’s economic reform under the Policy Support Initiative (PSI).

This deal was agreed upon when Nigeria’s foreign currency reserve was increasing due to rising crude oil prices. It became an avenue for the Paris Club to grab a chunk of Nigeria’s wealth knowing fully well that the country’s economy is largely tied to the volatile crude oil price and the opportunity may be lost in future. Besides this, and most importantly, the Paris Club agreed to this deal because they were convinced that Ngozi had implemented far-reaching neoliberal policies under the government’s National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (Needs) programme, dictated and supervised by IMF and World Bank. This programme brought about the privatisation of public corporations, selling of public assets, deregulation, liberalisation, cuts in social/public spending etc., all of which meant that the Paris Club members and imperialism, in general, hoped to make more profits in Nigeria.

Mind you, the huge expenditure of $12.4billion was made to the Paris club at a period of crying needs. For a country that just returned to civil rule, Nigeria’s economy including public education; healthcare and infrastructures were comatose as a result of years of misrule by the military. These huge resources could have been put to better use by deploying them to fund public education and healthcare, rebuild broken infrastructures and create jobs. (To read more about the DSM’s analysis of the Paris Club debt relief deal, see THE PARIS CLUB “DEBT RELIEF” PACKAGE – A Big Con and PARIS CLUB DEBT DEAL – The Working People Must Resist Re-colonialism).

Fuel subsidy removal

Ngozi’s next most significant ‘achievement’ was on January 1st 2012 when President Goodluck Jonathan announced the removal of fuel subsidy, which was an open attack on the living standards of Nigerian working masses. Fuel subsidy refers to government intervention to bridge the gap between the landing cost of refined fuel products imported into the country and its price per litre at the pump. The removal of this intervention led to an immediate 120% increase in the pump price of petrol from N65 per litre to well above N142 per litre. As transport fare jerked upwards across the country, many holiday makers were trapped in the countryside as they could no more afford the bus fare to come back to their jobs in the cities. This led to a dreadful new year for tens of thousands of families.

In her memoirs titled, “Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the headlines”, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has tried to place the blame for the timing of the announcement of the policy on other people advising the president. But what is undeniable is her role in drafting and promoting this brutal anti-poor policy of subsidy removal and its alternative of deregulation.

Months before then, she and other members of the economic team had travelled to different parts of the country addressing ‘town hall’ meetings to promote the policy. According to their argument, the fuel subsidy regime was opaque and corrupt and also the government finances could no more accommodate such expenditure. Instead of addressing the root cause of the subsidy, which was the absence of functioning public refineries and the domination of the oil and gas sector by private interests, the government decided on full deregulation of the petroleum industry which was the real objective of the Jonathan government and imperialism.

Given the connection that exists between the cost of goods and services and the price of fuel, this announcement was bound to spark outrage. By January 2nd, spontaneous and sporadic protests broke out which reached at least ten cities three days later. By January 6, a six-day general strike was declared by the labour movement. This transformed the movement leading to strident calls for Jonathan’s removal. Power was lying in the street as the government was suspended in the air.

Class enemy

The weakness and fears in government circles in those heady days of the strike were partially captured in Ngozi’s memoirs. Although in futile attempts at making excuses for herself and the government she served, she tried to put down the whole movement as a conspiracy of the bourgeois opposition. While the bourgeois opposition did attempt to hijack it, the January uprising was a genuinely spontaneous movement. The masses burst onto the stage of history in a desperate attempt to beat back the brutal attacks on their conditions and take control of their own destinies.

In doing this, they held in contempt the government and all its personages who are seen to be behind their misery. Ngozi was held high in the roll call of the masses’ class enemy because she was rightly seen to be the brain behind Jonathan’s economic policies. At the end of the day, the inept and clueless Jonathan government was only saved from crumbling by the bureaucratic and pro-capitalist labour leaders who had no wish for workers to take power and desperately wanted to end the strike. Therefore, at the first opportunity, these labour leaders suspended the strike without even winning any significant concessions. Nevertheless, the working masses did not forget. By the time the chance came in 2015, the masses wasted no time in utilising the ballot to send Jonathan’s government packing in payback for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s ruinous capitalist economic pills and other failures of the regime.

Dubious reformer

Her memoirs and media portrayal are also filled with images of her as a reformer whose success gained for her powerful enemies who once orchestrated the abduction of her mother. She also regularly describes herself as a “fighter”. She obviously was a reformer who introduced notable changes in the Nigerian capitalist superstructure and fought some vested interests, particularly in the oil and gas sector, but in whose interest? These ‘reforms’ were definitely not for the working class and the poor, including women and children, who suffered from her numerous brutal anti-poor policies.

She is a capitalist neo-liberal advocate who stands for a smart and pro-market economy that permits private investment and profit-making. Ngozi’s definition of corruption was someone who took money from the treasury but she had no problem with industrialists like Aliko Dangote, Otedola and others who set up factories and employ workers in cheap labour in violation of the labour laws in order to make fat profits from their exploitation.

Beyond, mere statements, Ngozi did not spearhead an anti-corruption drive under the Ministries she headed. Nobody was arrested and prosecuted on account of Okonjo’s drive to rid the polity of corruption. Rather she was sometimes seen in public with some corrupt politicians who looted public treasury. She appears a hypocrite as she turned a blind eye to the monumental corruption that was taking place on her watch as the Coordinating Minister of Economy.

On at least one occasion, she seems to have been directly involved. For instance, she provided the technical support for the “re-looting” of Abacha’ loot by transferring $300 million and $5.5 million pound sterling from the recovered money to the then National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, without appropriation by the National Assembly, few weeks to the 2015 presidential election (Premium Times, December 9, 2015). Dasuki was at the centre of the diversion of funds meant for the procurement of arms for war against Boko Haram insurgency to finance the re-election bid of President Jonathan.

Dollar minister

Not surprising, therefore, that despite her contrived anti-corruption stance, not only did she earn more than other government ministers during the Obasanjo presidency, she and another minister, Olu Adeniji, also received their wages in dollars in contravention of the law. Her annual wage as of 2005 was around $240, 000 while other government ministers earned the naira equivalent of less than $10, 000 annually. Ngozi’s then wage was 800 times Nigeria’s per capita gross national income and attracted to her huge resources similar to what would have been looted by other top public officials.

This is a huge wage in a country whose minimum wage was then N5, 500 per month (that is, N66, 000 year) for most workers. The low pay of doctors and university lecturers is a reason why thousands of these professionals leave the shore of Nigeria annually, thus causing acute shortages. But it gets more outrageous when her wage is compared to that of government ministers in rich capitalist countries. For instance, the value of what Ngozi earned in 2005 is worth about $331,200 today – over 50% higher than what the incoming US Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, will receive when she assumes office which is put at $210,700 per year! Even without accounting for inflation Ngozi got more dollars 16 years ago than Yellen gets now.

The revelation that Ngozi and Adeniji were being paid in dollars provoked a storm of protest prompting the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN), the founder of the National Conscience Party (NCP), to launch a long-running legal challenge to get the wages cancelled. It is noteworthy to recall that one of those opposed to Ngozi’s high wages was Festus Keyamo. He is now a Minister of state for labour in Buhari’s administration, which celebrates Okonjo’s WTO appointment as its achievement. According to Keyamo, “It smells terribly of immorality. It gives the impression that she is not there to serve, but to eat” (‘Ministers banking big bucks‘).

Given this history, it is scandal that two African trade union leaders, Nigeria’s Issa Aremu, and Joseph Montisetse from South Africa, have sent Ngozi a congratulatory message saying that “given her impeccable credentials as finance and foreign Minister and record performance at the World Bank, Dr Ngozi’s appointment was earned and deserved, beyond gender.” (Vanguard, Lagos, February 18, 2021). Most Nigerians would not see Ngozi’s record as “impeccable”! Unfortunately, this is not surprising given the way in which pro-capitalist union leaders often seek approval from capitalists.

In conclusion, the excitement around the elevation of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as WTO Director-General is unfounded. She is not a champion or symbol for working-class women or poor struggling Africans and blacks in the diaspora. Rather, she is a neo-liberal capitalist reformer whose work in Nigeria led to further deepening of the conditions of mass misery in the midst of abundance. Despite what some labour leaders may argue, her work in the WTO would be to support the profit interest of corporations and the ‘free-market’ with dire consequences for working people and labour rights. The only way forward as working people and youth in Nigeria, Africa, and across the world, is to begin to organise to defend and fight back against all anti-worker and anti-poor policies and ultimately for the replacement of capitalism with Socialism.



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February 2021