It was fortuitous that I came across a copy of the new book authored and publicly presented by the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and the minster of finance, two weeks ago. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala launched her new 198-page Reforming the Unreformable, before a choice audience of Nigerians and foreigners. Even though I was not among the high and mighty that graced the occasion, I was nevertheless opportune to have followed the copious media coverage it received.
My curiosity was stirred by the pessimistic nature of the book’s title and it was assuaged two days later when I came across a copy at the office of a friend who graciously lent it to me. I have read the book but must admit that I did not bother with the copious statistical data that made up about a third of the book. I was touched by the passion with which the minister told the story of her tenure as the finance minister under Obasanjo but I noticed a tendency for her to underplay the contributions of even the president and those of the other members of the Economic Management Team and to make them peripheral, as she created an unmistaken impression that she was unquestionably on the driving seat of all the reform efforts of that government.
The first striking thing about the book is that it paints Nigeria before her arrival as a hopeless place tottering on the edge of collapse, before she came to rescue us all, which obviously was not true. I was dismayed at how she underplayed the truth and impact of certain incidents and situations, and how while failing to give much credit to others, her bias and self-adulation were unconcealed.
For instance, it was not hard to see that she did not think much of the efforts of the erstwhile CBN governor, Professor Chukwuma Soludo, and so, gave only a scant recognition to his efforts at banking reform, which many equally knowledgeable people had described as a revolution. Rather, she was more enthused over what she regarded as the ‘reforming the banking reform’ (page 77), enthusiastically jubilating over how Soludo’s successor seemed to have tried to rubbish most of what Soludo had done. It hardly mattered that Sanusi arrived well after she had come and gone and yet his activities deserved mention in her book.
There might not have been any love lost between Soludo and Okonjo-Iweala, there was not much love, nevertheless, a book like this should never be an avenue to settle such cheap scores, as the likes of Soludo are obviously capable of authoring their own books. Equally, unappealing was how the minister tarred the Nigeria Customs Service in terrible and putrid colours as if she had a special axe to grind with the institution.
While it was obvious that she was describing the Customs as it might have been before and during the era of the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency, it was still intriguing that a book written by a person of her international stature and standing, whose words should be taken seriously in places that matter, could paint an important national institution in such terrible manner, without caring to update her work to show that outstanding and revolutionary reforms have indeed taken place at the NCS in the last three years.
Any other minister who might not be conversant with the dynamics of those giant reforms could be pardoned but not the minister under whose authority and supervision the Customs functions. And it is not that she did not do an update in some other areas, like in the description of the recent activities of the AMCON in salvaging some institutions as well as Sanusi’s witch-hunt of the Soludo era . According to Okonjo-Iweala, “during my three years in office as minister of finance, Customs was the most complained-about service of the Ministry…” and that, “…the NCS that I encountered in 2003 was far from a modern service.
It had three main problems: lengthy and inefficient systems and processes compounded by a lack of modern technology, equipment and needed infrastructure; inadequate human resources and necessary skills and incentives; and most important, massive corruption”. (Page 66). The book continued with the same invectives on NCS for several other pages and returned a terrible verdict (on page 92) where she wrote that, “One area in which the anti-corruption fight could not make any headway was the reform of the Nigerian (sic) Customs Service, widely regarded by many as an agency in need of clean-up, modernization and reform.
My attempts to reform it were undermined by the Customs Service’s elite beneficiaries, who conducted a media campaign suggesting that foreigners were about to be brought in to take over and reorganize the Customs Service…” She spoke gloomingly against the different aspects of the Customs operations and ended up giving an impression that the Customs was and still is, from the fact that she gave no redeeming update, one of those institutions that are notoriously “unreformable”.
She did not hide her pain that her efforts to bring in foreign consultants were rebuffed by the bosses of the NCS. She wrote in page 69, “In particular, J.G. Buba the Comptroller General of Customs, did not consider it necessary to introduce consultants to assist in the process of Customs reform, believing that NCS was quite capable of implementing the changes itself with some technical assistance perhaps from the World Customs Organization.
Our interaction with Crown Agents showed that they would be capable of delivering on the assignment”. But it was rather unfortunate that Okonjo-Iweala was not aware of how fiercely opposed Nigerians are whenever there is a suggestion of bringing oyibo people to do what they believe they can do for themselves, as had been amply demonstrated in the past that such attempts were mainly unpatriotic, unrewarding and ultimately dysfunctional.
It was even a huger surprise that the finance minster did not realize that most Nigerians were suspicious of what she was doing at the time, suspecting most of her efforts to be weighed in favour of Western interests. But then, that impression might have been fake, as people who know her say she is dripping with patriotism. There is also no doubt that she was and remains miffed that NCS bosses looked her in the face and said a resounding ‘No’; she over-looked the fact that uniformed people in Nigeria are madly driven by such patriotic zeal that they never hesitate to rebuff any foreign meddlesomeness in their affairs.
Okonjo-Iweala would have recalled that the Nigerian military staunchly resisted their efforts of their Commander-in-Chief, Obasanjo’s when he tried to inject US-led to reform our military – a situation that led to open confrontations between the Presidency and such military hotheads as General Victor Malu.
If the minister had history as her guide she would have known that Nigerians value their independence so passionately. Unfortunately, Okonjo-iweala had allowed her misgivings against the Customs to persist to the present times and has, in the process, started engaging in acts and pronouncements that even run against the grain of the policies of the present administration. For example, during the public hearing at the Senate last week on the Customs and Excise Management Act amendment bill which was aimed at modernizing, institutionalizing and giving legal teeth to the enormous reforms currently going on at the Customs, the finance minister was the only voice that stridently stood out against the amendment that was undergoing its final stages.
Her strange reason was that an amended CEMA law that would free the NCS from the stranglehold of an archaic and anachronistic 1958 colonial law would take away her powers as well as those of the president. It was a strange reasoning because there is ample evidence that the president is not only the strongest supporter and stimulator of the ongoing reforms at the Customs, but in fact, he is a key supporter of the CEMA amendment. When he personally delivered a keynote address at 119/120th Sessions of the Customs Cooperation Council/World Customs organization, in Brussels Belgium between the 28th and 30th June, President Jonathan proudly shared with the world bodies the gigantic reforms that are ongoing in the Customs and unequivocally recounted how his administration had been the proud motivator, supporter and catalyst of those reforms since he came to office.
He had enthused, “On legislation, the review of the Customs and Excise Management Act (CEMA) Cap 45 Law of the Federation of Nigeria along with other Customs and excise notices, decrees, and guidelines, is ongoing. In particular, the law would be duly aligned with the WTO Customs Valuation Agreement with a view to strengthening the implementation of Customs formalities and clearance procedures.” He had earlier bemoaned the challenges facing the Customs services of developing world nations and had stated that it was his “pleasure to share with” the world, what his “Administration is doing to overcome some of those challenges in order to enhance Customs efficiency as well as foster greater cooperation with relevant Government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs)”.
The president then went ahead to enumerate the elaborately detail the reform agenda of the Customs under his watch, as well as how well the NCS is being repositioned and transformed into an effective and functional, result-oriented organization. It was, therefore, surprising that the Finance Minister would be publicly campaigning against those very things that the president – her boss – had enthusiastically preached and boasted about, only a few months ago at an international forum.
The fact that the minister has refused to acknowledge these giant improvements does not remove the fact that her Ministry and the economy she superintends have become the better for them. It has become a household fact that the Customs has remained the second highest revenue earner to the country after petroleum, with the effect that its revenue target has continued to increase since the last three years by leaps and bounds, to the extent that the Abdullahi Dikko Inde Customs has set for itself a target to rake in a record N1.3trn by the end of this year.
It would be safe to claim that without the NCS, Nigerians workers would not be assured of their monthly wages. Most of the deficits the minister enumerated in her book that were militating against the Customs were administrative in nature, and once there were serious efforts from the current NCS Management and whole-hearted support that has been shown by the government of the day, those problems have largely disappeared and the NCS has become the most improved Nigerian institution within the lifespan of this administration; all that is happening under Okonjo-Iweala’s nose.
A phenomenal attention given to training and capacity building in the system has necessitated a wholesale modernization and equipment of the Service, with the case that the once archaic system has become largely modernized, automated and computerized. This process has been characterized by huge and massive investments in infrastructures and modern facilities at all NCS formations nationwide. Because staff welfare currently forms a very important component of the ongoing reforms at the Customs, morale-boosting activities have become the feature of the day, raising efficiency, performance and making the service more professional.
The workforce has steadily continued to metamorphose into a proud outfit which now largely frowns at corruption in its operations. But then, as a human oragnisation, there is no way there cannot be some Judases. The minister ought to have been the first to acknowledge these giant modernization efforts in the Customs. After all she proudly commissioned a brand new aircraft acquired by the Customs last August 31st, at which ceremony, according to a release from her office, she heartily congratulated the Comptroller General and urges the Service to “work harder to achieve better results for the country”. She appreciated that the acquisition of the aircraft would conduce to the anti-smuggling efforts of the NCS.
She is additionally aware that hundreds of officers and men of the Customs have undergone training in very specialized areas are therefore adequately positioned and equipped to undertake newer and more challenging tasks and responsibilities. For instance, as from the first day of 2013, NCS would be taking over the import Destination Inspection tasks which had been contracted to three mostly foreign companies, as the current contract expires this year. The security implications of the move cannot be over-emphasized; neither do I need to elaborate on the amount of revenue which would be retained for the country. What has happened and is happening in the Customs in the last three years is so phenomenal that it cannot be captured in a short write up. But suffice it to say that these happenings have been visible and commendable and it is only an unfair observer that would regard the NCS of 2012 as being among those institutions that seem “unreformable”. Let it be placed on record that Okonjo-Iweals’s is a timely book which puts many historical facts in perspective but which unfortunately failed to update many important aspects of our socio-economic system that have witnessed phenomenal reformative efforts since she resigned from Obasanjo’s government in 2006. Failing to point out those factors would seem to suggest that Nigeria had stood still since she was here, which of course, cannot be true. The happenings in the Customs in the last three years are the key proof of that.