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Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala seeks reform without the 'godfathers'

Western nations and international agencies admire the reform efforts of Nigeria's new finance minister. But Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala faces daunting challenges in cleaning up embedded corruption.

By Tim Cocks and Joe BrockReuters / September 13, 2012

Nigeria's Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has found reforming Nigeria's notoriously corrupt economy to be a long-term challenge. 'You make progress, then you get courage to make more ... Fighting corruption is something we need to keep working at,' she says.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters


Abuja, Nigeria

Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is battling to reform one of the world's most corrupt nations without support from the shadowy "godfathers" who wield power from behind the scenes.

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Summoned by President Goodluck Jonathan last year to restore some order to Nigerian public finances, the former World Bank managing director says her efforts are slowly bearing fruit.

But while Western nations and international agencies admire her drive from afar, they hold little sway in Nigeria. Ms. Okonjo-Iweala's ability to fight corrupt interests is constrained by her lack of support from wealthy figures such as ex-state governors, military officers, and ruling party hacks who use huge patronage – or sometimes violence – to drive politics back stage.

"Her only 'godfather' is the international community, and that doesn't cut it," said a senior adviser to the national assembly, who asked not to be named.

When she quit her Washington job and flew back home, Okonjo-Iweala knew her second stint as finance minister would be tough. She now admits it has been even tougher than she imagined.

"It was much harder. It has not been easy, and the struggle is still ongoing," she told Reuters in her office in Abuja, the capital, exhausted by a night negotiating with oil unions. "You make progress, then you get courage to make more ... Fighting corruption is something we need to keep working at."

Okonjo-Iweala has started to tame government expenditure and make limited reforms, but her room for maneuver is limited by her restricted access to state revenue, 80 percent of which comes from oil. She has also found herself again fixing problems she tackled during her first term that ended six years ago, only for these achievements to have been undone in the meantime.

Okonjo-Iweala, who missed out on the World Bank presidency earlier this year, may yet decide to take another high-profile international job. She is tipped as a possible next World Trade Organization head, although she has so far shown no interest.

Should she decide to leave Abuja, her biggest challenge will be ensuring any reforms she makes can't be undone.

Nigeria's dysfunction is hugely profitable for some. Its moribund power grid allows importers of generators and diesel to make immense sums; dilapidated refineries leave Africa's top oil producer dependent on imported petrol that has made billionaires of a handful of tycoons thanks to a corrupt fuel-subsidy scheme. Ports are clogged with goods held up by bribe-seeking officials.

Some of the elites which profit from these inefficiencies are blocking attempts at structural reforms, including Okonjo-Iweala's, such as curbs on state spending and the removal of the fuel subsidy, raising doubts about how much they can achieve.

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