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Fighting Corruption Is Possible – The Story Behind The Headlines

Fighting Corruption Is Possible – The Story Behind The Headlines 

Book Review: “Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines” by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

– Culled from P. Okigbo III | Nextier

Reading “Fighting Corruption is Dangerous” by Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala provides a window into what it takes to reform Nigeria’s public service. It is not a glamorous game; in fact, it is a contact sport and people can get hurt. People do get hurt.

The book opens with the story of how the author’s 83-year-old mother was kidnapped from her home by people suspected to have been hired by oil marketers (who were not pleased that their largesse was about to be ended). The story of how her mother wriggled out of her harness and hightailed back to her home is the stuff of Nollywood. The horror tales continue through the eight chapters of the 173-page book and chronicle threats of both physical pain and reputational damage.

The book brought back memories of an episode I had with the author back in 2013. At the time, she was Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and Coordinator of the Economy. The Ministry of Finance engaged my firm, Nextier, to advise on how to enhance sports financing in Nigeria through a revitalised national lottery. Countries like the United Kingdom and South Africa used their national lottery to fund “good causes” such as the arts, education, healthcare, sports, etc. For instance, from its inception in 1994 to 2013, the United Kingdom’s National Lottery generated over £30 billion for “good causes” and spent an estimated £5 billion directly on sports. Similarly, from its inception in 2000 to 2013, South Africa’s National Lottery generated about US$1.86 billion for “good causes” and spent an estimated US$0.41 million on sports.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala felt that Nigeria could achieve a similar feat with its national lottery. Nextier estimated that Nigeria’s National Lottery could generate about N291 billion per annum from its national lottery and that N58 billion could be assigned to the National Lottery Trust Fund to be spent on selected “good causes”. We made a case for the sports sector to receive 15 percent of the allocation. Such an amount could be used to fund a strategic sports development plan in close collaboration with private sector players ready to co-invest with the government.

Nigeria’s National Lottery needed to be revitalised to realise such results. While many of the 12 licensed lottery operators generated billions of naira in proceeds, Nigeria’s National Lottery Trust Fund generated only N2.7 billion between 2007 and 2013. The revitalisation required that we build consensus around the technical solution and then amass political support to break up the “lottery mafia”.

Nextier built the technical consensus. We worked closely with the relevant ministries to develop the plan. We partnered with the same London-based economic consulting firm that advises the U.K. Lottery and they provided some specific technical guidance to the process. The plan was debated in several technical sessions with the relevant ministries until all parties agreed that we had a good technical plan.

With a solid plan and the buy-in from the bureaucracy, we moved to the next step: political sell. Nextier was invited to present the plan to a subset of ministers after one of the Federal Executive Council meetings in the summer of 2013. We were not naïve. We knew it would be a difficult meeting because we had found indications that some of the people in the room may not be completely unbiased parties. However, I placed a lot of hope in the fact that the Coordinating Minister of the Economy was the convener of the meeting. With her ownership and support of the process, we could bring out the big-gun (Mr. President) if need be. In fact, at this point, I was already bragging that with the funding almost secure, Nigeria could win the global soccer championship within the next five world cup cycles?

Things went south very fast. The attacks started even before we completed the presentation. The attacks had nothing to do with the technical content of the report; rather, it was about innuendoes and baseless accusations. It was quickly obvious that we were up against a formidable stronghold that came prepared to fight and win. By the end of the meeting, we were bloodied and the plan, at least in the current version, was dead. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala made many spirited efforts to defend the plan but it was clear to her, and to all of us, that majority of the people in the room needed to maintain status quo ante. Three months of work – and the great hope of a revitalised national lottery – turned to dust and blew away in the wind.

I waylaid Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and made another impassioned plea that we should give it another fight. “Madam, you have to get President Jonathan involved”. She could tell I was in pain and she gave me room to make my arguments then she said (something to the effect):

“Patrick, I know you are disappointed but you see, in this fight against corruption, I have only a few bullets; yet, many battles to fight. This National Lottery project is very important; after all, I engaged your firm to work on it. However, it is low on the hierarchy of battles that must be fought and won. I can expend some of my bullets on it and I know I will win; however, I will make powerful enemies on this low priority battle who will join ranks with the enemies who are already amassed around the really important battles. That means I won’t win the really important battles. I have to save my bullets for the main battles.”

I have been around power long enough to know when to fold my cards and leave the table. I folded. It was terrible breaking the news to the young men and women who worked with me on the project. What was particularly painful for me was the fear that they may believe that there was no point fighting these battles if someone as high as the Coordinating Minister of the Economy (with the ears of the president) could not win such a “small” battle. We went back to the drawing board a few more times to see if there are other entry points. Each time we hit a dead-end. We needed some high calibre bullets for that fight but all we had was a catapult and some stones. Those Goliaths won.

“Fighting Corruption is Dangerous” is a good read and I will point the young men and women on my team to read it. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala chronicles what it takes to fight corruption in Nigeria. She provided the backstory to the various big headlines around the 2012 fuel subsidy removal, SURE-P, Nigeria Ports Reforms, intrigues around the national budget, those who stopped Nigeria from saving for the rainy day, and how their action set the country up for the 2015 recession, challenges with public service reforms and efforts to lower Nigeria’s recurrent expenditure, various forms of public service scams (my favourite is the “Judgment Scam”), etc.

The book is a good (and quick) read for anyone interested in learning how corruption has stymied Nigeria’s development. It is an even more important read for anyone who wants to understand why Nigeria has not been able to win the anti-corruption war. It is because fighting corruption is a dangerous endeavour. The author acknowledges that her international stature and network of international cheerleaders enabled her to emerge with her reputation still intact. She wondered if crusaders with smaller networks could have been as successful. We do not need to look farther than to Nuhu Ribadu’s saga following Obasanjo’s exit in 2007 or that of Dr. Nellie Mayshak whose image was almost destroyed because she attempted to reform Nigeria’s pension system.

The book ends with five important reflections. First, the author questions whether the anti-corruption fight is worth the personal risk especially to those who are close to the reformer. Second, she emphasised the need to build coalitions of support if one chooses to walk through this valley of the shadow of death. Third, while the international community may provide some support, the anti-corruption fight must be carried on the heads of those inside the country. Nobody will swallow this “Panadol” but those who own the headache. Fourth, the fight should not be underestimated; rather, there is a need for a well-considered game plan supported with a good communication strategy. Fifth, the author concluded on a high note that, despite the evident risks and difficulties, fighting corruption is possible. This was the right note on which to end the very interesting book.

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