WRITER: John Defterios / CNN
In a world where powerful women are still too often linked to powerful men, former Nigerian Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is refreshingly her own person. Having proven instrumental in developing reform programs to stabilise her country’s economy, improving governmental transparency and helping it attain its first-ever sovereign credit rating, she admits there are still plenty of challenges to overcome.
At a shade over half a trillion dollars, Nigeria is the largest economy on the African continent by a wide margin. What’s more, recent economic headlines for the country have been impressive: growth raced ahead to 7 per cent before the recent downturn (it’s now just under 4 per cent) and total GDP was re-based to factor in the rise of a young and upwardly mobile population. In the past couple of years, banking, retail, telecoms and Nollywood have also been part of the explosive growth story and experts predict the country’s GDP will reach 1 trillion USD before 2030.
Despite how low oil prices are affecting current growth, there’s been no shortage of praise showered upon Nigeria from the global investment community. Jim O’Neill, author and former Goldman Sachs lead economist, included the country in his Next-11 group of leading emerging markets. MINT – a popular market acronym to single out rising stars in the developing world – stands for Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.
But it’s not all hunky-dory. A large share of the population, especially in the northeast, a Boko Haram stronghold, lives on less than 2 USD a day. The country is blessed with the second largest oil reserves in Africa (Libya’s got the largest) but accusations of corruption are widespread at the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.
Lamido Sanusi, the former governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank dropped a bombshell during my annual emerging market panel at the World Economic Forum two years ago, suggesting 20 billion USD had gone missing between January 2012 and July 2013. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the finance minister until last month, led the charge for an independent audit of the NNPC, which found billing irregularities of just under 1.5 billion USD.
Okonjo-Iweala, often referred to as just ‘Ngozi’ was the global face of investors in Nigeria. She may have presence and an infectious smile but she’s clearly no pushover. After spending two decades at the World Bank in Washington plying her trade as a development economist, she eventually rose to the rank of managing director. She was one of the finalists for the top job in 2012 but was nudged out by America’s candidate Jim Yong Kim.
I had the chance to sit face-to-face with Minister Okonjo-Iweala at the annual St. Gallen Symposium in May, with the Swiss Alps serving as our inspiring backdrop – a far different landscape from her base in Nigeria, and mine in Abu Dhabi. While we met before an ‘A-list’ audience of CEOs and students aspiring to be CEOs, protests were taking place over fuel and cash shortages back in Nigeria.
Framing our 45-minute session as today’s ‘State of Nigeria’ after four years at the Ministry of Finance, I asked Okonjo-Iweala why a country with so much oil wealth is actually witnessing that level of economic pain on the streets. “A lot is linked to the fact we dropped 50 per cent in our revenues so of course, there is a cash crunch at the moment.” But then she went on to describe the shortages as a by-product of vested interests attempting to squeeze the last bit of money from the outgoing government. “Because the government is coming to an end they are getting quite nervous and they are pushing very hard, and they are using this shortage as an instrument to get the existing government to pay quickly without going through a thorough verification. And we are not going to do that.”
A petroleum industry bill has been parked within parliament for four years, a clear indication of the resistance to change according to the minister. While two-thirds of OPEC’s members did not agree with the push by Saudi Arabia to maintain production, which drove down prices, Okonjo-Iweala took the opposite view, suggesting that the fall from 115 USD a barrel a year ago forced discipline on Nigeria, a long-time member of the organisation of oil producers.
“Lower oil prices, people may find it funny when I say this, is not such a bad thing for our country, since it will push us to diversify,” said the ardent champion of economic reforms. “You need to focus on the non-oil structural reforms that will unleash the private sector and that, is where we need to pay attention.”
Okonjo-Iweala doesn’t like the fact oil still makes up 70 per cent of government revenues, down from 85 per cent when she came to office. “I want to tell you a secret,” she says, “Nigeria is not really an oil economy. I know people find this strange but our GDP is very diversified.”
She spoke with enthusiasm about the boom in consumer banking, telecommunications, agriculture and the creative sector, fuelled by a fast-growing population of 170 million consumers. “That means we have the chance to tap revenues from the non-oil sector and actually decrease the impact of oil revenues on the economy and that is what needs to be done in the next phase.”
That next phase won’t belong to her though. General Muhammadu Buhari’s government took over in what was seen as a successful and peaceful transfer of power, after the March presidential election that unseated Goodluck Jonathan.
In Jonathan’s last two months of power, the military intensified efforts to try and rid the terrorist organisation, Boko Haram, from the northeast of the country. About a third of the women and girls kidnapped over the past two years have been freed. But military action, African commentators suggest, has been slow in coming. And there’s still another challenge for the new government, and that is closing the wealth gap that clearly exists between the North and South.
As Okonjo-Iweala put it, “The divide is still there and it has been created by colonialism and we have not been able to overcome it. It is nothing new. But it has to be solved.”
John Defterios is CNN’s Emerging Markets editor and anchor based in Abu Dhabi. He hosts the weekly emerging market property development segment ‘One Square Meter’ every Tuesday - www.cnn.com/onesquaremeter