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50 questions for Ngozi

The House of Representatives Committee on Finance invited the Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala last week for a briefing on the national…

The House of Representatives Committee on Finance invited the Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala last week for a briefing on the national economy. According to reports, the Committee heard from the minister that she was unwell, but had answered their summons out of respect. Which was just as well, the Committee felt, because she can now take away the questions they had planned to ask her, all fifty of them, as homework, and submit written answers in two weeks. She would then appear before them in January next year to defend her answers. The minister requested to be given a verbal examination on the spot, assuring the Committee that she and her colleagues will not give haphazard responses to the questions. The committee insisted that it wanted written responses to its questions, and for good measure, reminded the minister that she was not in the Ministry of finance where her words were law, but in the House of Representatives where she had no say.
The 50 questions by the Committee which the minister had wanted to answer on the spot verbally were then published for all Nigerians to see. It is safe to assume that those questions were never intended for the minister to answer verbally, on the spot. Even without her poor health, it was not the type of examination the Committee would have planned to conduct verbally, in a sitting. It is more likely that the Committee went into the meeting with its 50 questions tucked away, and would have engineered any situation that will prevent a verbal examination. It will be uncharitable to assume that the minister herself had an idea of the type of questions the Committee had planned to ask her, but her request for a verbal examination, if it had been granted, would have ended up in either of two ways. One, she would have answered many with a simple yes or no. That would not have satisfied the legislators. She could have been vague, general or unsure over many others, insisting that she needed time to give fuller and more reliable answers. With the press around, that would not have satisfied the legislators. She could have advised that some of the question required extensive consultation with colleagues in other ministries, but the legislators would have insisted that the coordination role she plays is sufficient for her to answer all questions on the economy. She could have repeated many of the official explanations, rationalizations, projections, justifications, limitations and frustrations of the national economy, but the legislators would have said they had heard it all before. So the meeting would have ended up producing nothing except perhaps the humiliation of the minister, and a waste of time and resources. Or the legislators and the minister would have discussed weighty issues over the structure, operations and challenges of the Nigerian economy merely as a media event, without doing justice to any of them.
As it turned out, the legislators insisted on full written answers to questions that appear to have been well thought out. In fact, you could say the Committee on Finance had decided to raise all the fundamentals of the management of our economy as questions, and then hang the Minister of Finance on them. If this was an examination, you will fail the examiner and not the student on the grounds that the questions asked are not intended to be answered by reference to a marking scheme. Undergraduate students studying macro economics will be familiar with questions like “What will you consider as the major economic achievements of this government in the 2013 fiscal year and why? In your explanation, we will need facts and figures in demonstrating such achievement.” Easy for Dr Okonjo-Iweala, but she may not get a pass mark from legislators who have made up their minds that there are no major economic achievements.
If that is the only question, she would be failed and asked to repeat the test. She will repeat the same answers. There are many questions on capital and recurrent spending, inflation, competitiveness of the Nigerian economy, privatization of the power sector, poverty, debts and assessment of the performance of the Nigerian economy. There are others far her homework on protection policies, National Sovereign Fund, SURE-P, interest rates, oil prices and benchmarking, Excess Crude Account, funding of the EFCC and revenue figures from NNPC and other revenue sources. The Committee wants answers on extra-budgetary spending, foreign investment, planning as an instrument of governance, external reserves, missing funds from sale of crude, growth of the economy and job creation.
There are many questions asked, to which the minister can answer yes or no, but this is hardly going to be sufficient. Adequate answers to many others will involve extensive consultations with colleagues in Petroleum Resources, Trade and Investment, Power, National Planning Commission, Central Bank of Nigeria, agencies such as Federal Inland Revenue Service, Customs and Excise and Budget Office of the federation. These consultations may produce responses that merely rehash everything that the Committee and the nation has either heard before, or has records of. The minister could submit responses in bound volumes larger than the Report of the Advisory Committee on National Dialogue, and confront the legislators with the challenge of making any sense of it all. Or she could submit a response like Obasanjo’s 18-page essay which will raise more answers that need more answers.
It is very difficult to see how the framers of the 50 questions can be taken seriously. They have made Okonjo-Iweala’s examination very easy. She merely has to go back and submit responses which reinforce existing positions, and stick to them in arguments over validity of facts, assessments or suspicions. The Committee will never get her to admit that the economy is poorly run; policies are not informed by the best options available; that absence of transparency in revenue collection is a major problem; that funds from crude account are missing; that extra-budgetary spending is a recurring element in the economy; that the Excess Crude Account is illegal; or that assessment and rating of the Nigerian economy which she holds up are fraudulent. In subsequent engagements, she only needs to refer to her detailed explanation on all facets of the economy covered by the 50 questions. The committee could disagree with her on virtually all her responses, but they will have to prove that she is wrong, and they are right.
How will they do this? If the Committee has hard evidence, statistics and facts on the management of the economy, and they are holding on to these waiting to examine, pass or fail the Minister, it will give many Nigerians great comfort. But they do not. If they have capacities for research and analyses which will allow them to prove conclusively that the Coordinating Minister for the Economy is either incompetent, uninformed or misleading them and the nation, that will generate a major boost of public confidence in the legislators’ capacity to exercise oversight responsibilities. But they do not have these capacities, which is tragic. If the Minister has not been hardened by numerous skirmishes with legislators over every element in the management of our economy, she may be more disposed to provide more balanced responses to questions which have been posed in a combative manner.
Ngozi’s 50-question homework will remind the nation of the deficiencies in the manner our democratic system operate. In those 50 questions, you see evidence of the gulf which exists between the executive and the legislature in the manner one runs the economy, and the other struggles to exercise oversight responsibilities over it. You see evidence of prolonged stress, hostility and suspicion between the two. From the executive, you see evidence of a resigned submission to powers of the legislature, but not one which has a genuine and credible need for information on the management of our economy. So everyone goes through the motion of answering summons, responding in a defensive, or even combative manner, giving information which is hardly useful, and then sitting back waiting for the next summons. From the legislature, you see evidence of frustration from an organ with huge powers but little means of exercising those powers.
As the political landscape changes in the National Assembly and the gulf between the executive and the legislature widens, relations between the two will worsen. Ngozi’s 50 questions merely reflect a deep-seated hostility which exists between key organs of the national assembly and the presidency. Dr Okonjo-Iweala will be tossed and thrown around as these tussles intensify. No one should expect anything of value from the Minister’s responses to the 50 questions.

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