One woman's fight: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala memoir offers guide to fighting corruption

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former finance minister of Nigeria. Photo by: Overseas Development Institute / CC BY-NC

WASHINGTON — Picture this: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at the time serving her second stint as Nigeria’s finance minister and sitting before President Goodluck Jonathan in his stately office, had just poured cold water on a foreign investment deal that sounded promising but could lead to Nigeria holding the bag — and around $2 billion in debt — if the project didn’t work out. As she reflects on that moment from 2014 in her just-released memoir “Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines,” the prominent global development leader recalls, “The presidential adviser had the 'I told you so' look, as though he was thinking, once you get this woman involved, then this won’t work."

The glittering facts about Okonjo-Iweala are widely known in global circles. She is a former managing director of the World Bank and the first non-American who at one time seemed to have a shot at becoming its president. She is a renowned economist with a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology; chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, board member of the Rockefeller Foundation, and a commissioner, board member, fellow, or adviser for a dizzying number of global committees, think tanks, and companies. Devex has honored her and we’re far from alone.

What may be less known is how decidedly unglamorous, even downright perilous, was her service in the Nigerian government, particularly the second time around when she was finance minister from 2011-2015. That vital story is personally and provocatively relayed in Okonjo-Iweala's new candid memoir from MIT Press. It contains remarkable moments, such as the weeklong kidnapping of her 83-year-old mother who escaped by shimmying out of her bonds, sliding down an embankment to a highway, and flagging down a motorcycle taxi who had luckily heard the news about her abduction.

The book is about Nigeria and the endemic corruption there. It’s not an exaggeration to say that as Nigeria goes, so goes at least the developing world. The massive country represents 30 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product. By 2050 it will have more people than the United States; and it sits in a critical corner of the planet, rich with natural resources, rife with conflict, and closely connected by trade and migration to West, North, and Central Africa, and Europe. It’s hard to imagine global success on the Sustainable Development Goals without Nigeria getting on track.

But Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous is also the story of global development beyond Nigeria. What democratic middle-income country, seeking to climb the ladder of economic growth, has not been beset by corruption scandals that have rocked society to its foundation this decade? Malaysia, Mexico, Chile, the Philippines, South Africa, and so many more are on that long list.

It’s nice to believe that countries with an aspiring middle class, natural resources, and a growing economy can get together around the idea of an expanding pie for everyone and simply will away corruption. But Okonjo-Iweala’s book offers a different view, one informed by battles both hard won and lost. Corruption can’t be casually outgrown over time; it has to be vigorously fought in the trenches.

“Outsiders can only assist. Corruption must be fought by insiders and from the inside.”

— Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, author of “Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines”

That fight has a cost. Her mother’s kidnapping and, later, a serious plot to maim but avoid killing Okonjo-Iweala herself, came from some nefarious oil marketeers who were making a fortune off government oil subsidies. The scale of the problem is shocking: In a country where over a third of the people live below the absolute poverty line, oil subsidies amounted to 38 percent of the federal government’s entire budget in 2011. Okonjo-Iweala’s moves to eliminate them — and the graft that surround them — bought her some bitter enemies.

And while she takes pains to name and praise honest and patriotic Nigerians working in government and business, it’s hard not to see her as something of a lone and often quixotic figure in a swamp of corruption, ethnic competition, and discrimination against women. With oil subsidy theft widely recognized, the Nigerian House of Representatives set up a committee to investigate. The committee chairman, who railed against the “sleaze” and “incompetence” his committee uncovered, was then caught on tape taking a $3 million shakedown payment from a Nigerian business executive in exchange for keeping his companies’ names off the investigation report.

“What country can operate like this?” Okonjo-Iweala incredulously asks the reader, in various forms, throughout the book.

One source of exasperation was the fact that in a country so dependent on oil revenues, Nigeria’s finance ministry "had little or no role to play in the management of the country’s oil industry.” Besides corruption, oil dependence is Okonjo-Iweala’s unstated nemesis in the book. She describes, for example, how in 2012 the country was losing around $1 billion per month in oil revenues that never materialized. When she looked into it, she found that sophisticated outlaws were stealing the oil from pipelines, sometimes using high-tech underwater equipment. They were stealing as much as 150,000 barrels per day and oil companies were shutting off the pipelines to address the theft, costing the country as much as 400,000 barrels per day of oil production.

But Okonjo-Iweala is no pessimist. The experience of having her reputation attacked and person and family threatened was clearly harrowing and frustrating. Nonetheless, she put some points on the board. One, from her first period as finance minister, was to institute a government budgeting process based on a conservative projection of future oil prices. Okonjo-Iweala describes how that has made the country less susceptible to a fall in oil prices. In addition, when prices go up, the revenue above the budget projection now goes into a rainy day fund and a sovereign wealth fund, both her initiatives.

That approach too brought a political firestorm on her head: State governors oppose the idea that those additional revenues stay at the federal level and don’t come under their discretion right away and legislators want to plan more expansive budgets and thus are constantly trying to push up the projected oil price.

Another victory was moving from massive oil subsidies to a new program — the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Program, or SURE-P — which invests in maternal and child health, roads and rail, job creation, and transportation safety net programs. But this too was only born out of a ham-handed rollout of the subsidy elimination and the massive street protests that followed.

Tackling corruption: 6 takeaways from the World Bank Spring Meetings

Public sector corruption costs the world economy up to $2 trillion annually and fighting graft was high on the agenda of the World Bank Spring Meetings. Officials, business leaders, and civil society figures discussed how best to fight it, while World Bank Chief Executive Officer Kristalina Georgieva promised her institution would be "much stronger and proactive." Here are six key takeaways from the debate.

None of this was straightforward and easy. Okonjo-Iweala does not spare the reader the madcap details. Conversations, including with the former president and other members of the cabinet, are described extensively. So too is the role of international donors such as the United States Agency for International Development, the United Kingdom Department for International Development, and the World Bank, whose efforts to modernize government systems and build capacity are peppered throughout the story. (In one case, Okonjo-Iweala praises the donors for trying to modernize the government procurement process starting in 2004, while lamenting that it remains largely a cash-based system to this day.)

Ultimately this is a book about grit and also about what it means to be patriotic. Countries are used to erecting statues and painting murals for revolutionary sword-waving heroes during the fight for independence and freedom. But established, middle-income countries still have battles to be waged, and someone has to wage them. The work may be inglorious — including accusatory newspaper headlines and police ransacking the family home, both of which are current realities for Okonjo-Iweala, even out of office — but someone has to do it. As the former finance minister puts it toward the end of her bittersweet memoir, “Outsiders can only assist. Corruption must be fought by insiders and from the inside.”

About the author

  • Raj Kumar

    Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book "The Business of Changing the World," a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.

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