Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Finance Minister of the Federal Government of Nigeria.
I can sense the energy in the room and I am very excited to be here. I also think that it is great that this event is taking place at a time when thousands of women have experienced the gains since the Beijing conference.
I want to begin by thanking the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone his deputy Nicky Gavron and women's officer Anni Marjoram for the great honour and generosity bestowed on me to address you all today.
I thank you for the opportunity to share a platform with distinguished women like Tessa Jowell and MPs like Diane Abbott and athletes like Tanni Grey-Thompson. Very grateful, too for the role the British government plays not just in putting Africa's needs on global agenda but also in supporting Nigeria's democratically elected government and the reforms that we are making at this time.
But, above all, I want to thank the Mayor for the opportunity to be amongst and to address you all - the vibrant vital and very diverse community of London's women. I know that many of you are Africans, and some like me are Nigerian. Many of you, like me, are mothers, I am the proud mother of four wonderful children. And while there may not be another finance minister in this audience - or maybe there is one! - I would like to guess that almost every woman here today exercises budgetary control over her own, or her household's finances!
Therefore, every woman here plays a vital role in the economy. Am I right or wrong about that?
Which makes you finance minister of your household! Like me, you know that managing a budget, even when money is plentiful requires discipline and control.
Managing a budget; keeping the household clothed fed and housed and happy when debts have become unpayable and money is scarce, now that requires a great deal more. Discipline, control, foresight, courage, judgement and above all financial emotional and social skills. No wonder we women are given the challenging role of managing finances!
So while we celebrate our diversity. Let us also celebrate that which we have in common, let us celebrate our ability to multi-task, and to manage things in a way that with all due respect our men sometimes cannot manage!
Anni Marjoram has told me that London is home to people of 14 different faiths and over 300 languages. That 100 more languages are spoken here than in New York. That London is the official cosmopolis. We Africans know about diversity. We are part of a great continent. One that is so large that it could easily swallow up the whole of Europe, the US and China and still leave room for more! My own country Nigeria, is as big as Western Europe, as the deputy Mayor said, and Britain would fit into a part of Nigeria.
Nigeria has population, which at 130 million and growing, is almost double that of Britain. Our biggest city, Lagos has a population of more than 13 million people.
We come from ancient complex and diverse cultures, cultures that were established long before the Celts arrived in Britain. And in Nigeria we speak - according to the official tally - 515 different languages, I am not talking about dialects I am talking about languages that are not mutually intelligible. So in that sense we are even more diverse than London.
Nigeria is home to two of the world's great religions. Alongside these two big groups are many millions who hold indigenous beliefs.
Nigeria has 36 states all with fiercely independent elected governors. So the Nigerian government has the huge task of holding together a vast country of diverse and complex communities. In this sense, the challenges facing president Obasanjo government are much more like challenges facing the European Union or the US. This is a fact that is often not appreciated outside of Africa. Yet in the west, we continue to think about and speak of the country Nigeria and our continent Africa as if it were just one country with one kind of people and with just one problem: Corruption.
From what I have said, you can see that it is much more than that and this meeting today affords me an opportunity to dispel some of the platitudes about Africa and some of the dimensions of thinking about the continent.
In Africa women play a vital role in keeping our families and our communities fed and healthy. African women are the backbone of the rural economy, accounting for 70 per cent of food production. But while African women's essential contribution to households to food production and national economies is recognised, women remain poor. The majority of the poor and illiterate in both urban and rural areas are women. Just as distressing, maternal and infant mortality rates in African remain the highest in the world, while HIV/AIDs is devastating many young people between the ages of 15 to 25. In sub-Saharan Africa 6 million young women are infected with HIV/AIDS while 4 million men are infected. So while African women are essential to all social security their vital role is under threat from poverty, from ill health, disease and from illiteracy.
If we are to help Africa, we must help African women.
But, women must not just be seen as victims to be helped. African women are the brains and bodies behind many successful micro, mini and medium enterprises from food processing and marketing to small scale manufacturing. And even to sophisticated financial services. Here there are also many women emerging as entrepreneurs in many countries in Africa in services, in agriculture and as I say even in the financial sector. One of the biggest financial sector firms in South Africa is run by a woman. The key issue is that women often encounter more difficulty than men in getting access to public and private services to improve their lives. Yet it is well-known that when women do well financially and economically, they tend to plough more back in the up keep and wellbeing of their families than their men do. So if Africa is to achieve the Millennium development goals - those goals for reducing poverty set by world leaders in 2000 - we must support women and we must support African women.
Because, one in five Africans is Nigerian, it is therefore vital in my view, to support Nigeria, and Nigerian women, in our efforts to reduce poverty, tackle HIV/AIDS to spread education to our people, men and women. We want to assure you that we are making all efforts to reform Nigeria to set a new tone, to set a new image, to get away from the stereotypical thinking about the country.
And we are making great gains.
Last year our economy grew at 6 per cent. We managed to get inflation under control.
We just want people to give us credit where credit is due.
Africa is carrying a millstone around its neck. The millstone of debt. African countries owe a total of 250 billion dollars and they spend about 15 billion dollars in debt service each year. My country Nigeria alone owes 34 billion in external debt. 85 per cent of this or 28 billion dollars is owed to that group of creditors called the Paris club made up of many countries like UK, Japan and the US. Much of this debt was incurred during a time of high interest rates in the early 80s when the country could not and did not service the debt. It ballooned through penalties and capitalisation of interest, to where we are today - $34 billion owing. It is this millstone that is making it so hard for African governments including my own to divert money to vital services like health and education, to recover, and to make reforms work well and to persuade our people that sacrifices are worth making. Because there is hope at the end of the tunnel.
Many people talk about corruption in Africa, and especially in my own country Nigeria. It is true: There is a problem of corruption. But, what you need to know is that we are tackling it head on. Let me say there is a new breeze in Africa. We have the African union working better than the previous organisation the organisation of African unity. We have the NEPAD, the New Economic Partnership for African Development, that is focusing on good governance and fighting corruption and many countries are taking the pledge to do better. More than 25 of the 53 countries involved in this pledged to have themselves peer reviewed - to check whether they are really making efforts and fighting corruption and are changing their countries.
Good results are coming in from Mozambique to Uganda to Ghana and also now in Nigeria. We are vigorously fighting corruption but you will hear so much about it because it is not overnight that you win that battle. There is no country in this world where there is no corruption. If you know one, tell me, and I will go there quickly and see what they are doing! I think the important thing is for us to own up to our problems and to be seen to be fighting them. We own up to the fact that we have had decades of mis-rule in Nigeria and we must fight this corruption head on I think that women play a vital part - which has been recognised in Nigeria where many women are being put at the head of very important agencies at the forefront of this fight.
One of my colleagues is having to fight this corruption around government contracts - she is making sure that all our contracts meet international standards, and that the government pays competitive prices. Another one is heading up an agency that fights the making of fake drugs. So women are there at the forefront of this battle and I want you to give them the moral support.
One single thing that would give Africans hope and that would give Africa a fresh start: Debt cancellation. It is this debt cancellation that would also give Nigerians hope. That would help us in the progress we have made in establishing democracy and in improving governance and challenging corruption. For the fact is, despite the myths about Nigeria, our country is not rich.
Nigeria is a poor country. Yes we have oil. But those oil earnings came to about 24 billion dollars last year and divided among the 130 million people comes to about 53 cents per capita per day for each Nigerian. The fact of the matter is this: Nigeria's oil has served as a giant mask to hide the genuine poverty of our vast country in which 70 million people live on a dollar a day or less.
We have an average income per head of $300 dollars. Compare that to average income in western countries of $26,000 per head!
President Obasanjo's government on coming to office in 1999 was faced with a country which had suffered terrible neglect and hardship under military dictatorship and which had built up this debt that we are talking about today. The fact is that as of 1986, Nigeria owed about $17 billion to the Paris club. We have already paid $12 billion of that - and yet today we owe $28 billion!
President Obasanjo's first task was to begin to repair the damage brought about by the long period of economic degradation. The government began by increasing spending on health and education. Nevertheless, despite our best efforts, more than 20 per cent of our young children do not attend primary school and that is something that we are absolutely determined to focus on and get those children into school.
Less than 50 per cent of the rural population have access to safe water. While life can be hard here in London for many poor people, nevertheless, I think every Londoner can rest assured that water coming out of their taps is clean. That is not a luxury enjoyed by millions of Nigerians and indeed Africans.
While we all mourned with the people who suffered and died in the Tsunami this year and we rejoiced in the way the world including Nigeria responded because we donated 1 million dollars to help.
Let us not forget - let us not forget that Nigeria suffers a Tsunami every month , 60 thousand Nigerian children die every month before they reach the age of 5. This is something that the President, the government, myself and other members of the government are very seized about. We care deeply about our children and we are trying to do everything possible to change that.
Yet despite this poverty, Nigeria gets less aid than every other African country. Every year, we get 2 dollars for each Nigerian compared to 28 dollars for every African in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
In fact let me tell you that when we net out what we give, we find out we end up paying $12 dollars per head, to the outside world for debt service, while we receive only $2 per head.
But it is not all bad news. The fact is that Nigeria's democratically elected government is achieving a great deal and I am proud, very proud to be Nigerian, and very proud to be part of our government's efforts. We are tackling the corruption of just a few people; but they should not give the rest of 130 million in our country a bad name and - that is why we are tackling them head on.
We put fighting corruption at the centre of government's policies.
President Obasanjo has vowed during his time that he will turn Nigeria into an island of integrity and we are making the move along those lines. The most notorious form of corruption - the one entered many of your e-mails or inboxes - the so-called "advance fee scam" is being tackled head on - people have been jailed, and many are awaiting trial.
The chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) set up by president Obasanjo quotes this scam and says that it has destroyed the reputation and credibility of the country all over the world, and made it unnecessarily difficult for the majority of innocent Nigerians to transact business both locally and internationally.
So what have we done? EFCC has made numerous arrests of advance fraudsters - known as 419ers in Nigeria - and has begun to prosecute them. The EFCC has had many notable successes in doing this, as well as fighting other financial crimes and has netted about 700 million in assets and monies reclaimed from these individuals, about 500 of whom are behind bars at the moment.
Those who are also fighting to steal our oil notoriously - we call it "bunkering", the break into the pipelines and divert the oil to ships - are being fought head on. We have managed to reduce the oil being "bunkered" from 100 thousand barrels a day to 20 thousand. Two rear-Admirals have been court-marshalled for stealing oil; former ministers are under criminal investigation and some are being prosecuted. 130 top customs officials have been retired or sacked because of cases leading to inefficiency and/or corruption. 2 judges have been dismissed and one suspended and an Inspector General of Police was forced to resign, and is under investigation to account for monies! So, this is all to tell you that we are not standing still and that we are doing the very best that we can to make sure that we fight all of these ills.
We are succeeding yes. Is it going to change overnight? The answer is that it is going to take time. Now, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission's challenge is the immunity given to state governors by our constitution. It is an effort backed by many in the national assembly, the Parliament.
There is a unit established under president Obasanjo called the Due Process Unit - to get corruption out of government contracts. We have saved about a billion dollars in the past 2 years and we are proposing a radical law to oversee the use of oil revenues. It is called the Fiscal Responsibility Bill.
We are publishing every month what each tier of government gets from revenues so we can put information into the hands of Nigerians so that they can ask questions about what have you public officials done? What has your state governor done with the money given to him by the government? What has your president, or minister of finance or transport minister done to use our monies well?
We started this in 2004 and it is unprecedented - and something we will entrench in law to make sure that it continues.
Let me tell you that we are doing many things that have not been done before. But we need support. Challenging corruption and challenging the vested interests of a few powerful people and fighting for the interests of a millions of ordinary Nigerians is not easy.
We cannot do it on our own. We need your backing.
I think the essential thing is for us to lead the way and be sure that we mean business. You know, what I tell many people is this: Please look at Nigeria in particular. Look at what it is doing on its own merits in the present. Don't hark back always and constantly to the past. We know that there are many who have come here to London, and are giving the country a bad name. Those people are being tackled head on. We have entered into an agreement with the European Union so that such people will be watched from this side of the street; and devised laws that will help us tackle what they are doing. And we are co-operating with agencies that will help us tackle the spread of corruption.
But we need you to recognise that we are making strong efforts. You all know what it is like. Many of us here are mothers. If you have a child that has not been doing well, and has dropped out of school, is on drugs or is not doing what they are supposed to do, then you begin by talking to them, giving them counselling and eventually they come back to you. Perhaps they say; "we are now ready to go university and get a job. We want to stop doing drugs and stop doing all of the bad things we said we are doing". If instead of encouraging them, you constantly say: You are no good and you will never amount to anything; you're a drug addict - what will they do? They will either run away from you and go somewhere else. Or they will go back to the old ways.
Anyone who is to change needs positive reinforcement. We are asking the same for those African governments and particularly for my country that is trying to change and do the right thing. Please support us.
Let me end by saying let us celebrate the diversity of these African countries and the diversity that we find here. Let us celebrate what we have in common. Above all let us use what we have as women together to drive a better direction. Thank you so much
March 18, 2005
Bribery allegation over Budget: EFCC arrests Education Minister
By Our Reporter
Education Minister, Fabian Osuji, was arrested on Thursday by operatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over allegation that members of the National Assembly were offered bribe to increase the budget of his ministry.
There is a likelihood that some members of the Education Committees of the Senate and House of Representatives may also be arrested if there is proof of the allegation against the Education Minister.
News of such bribery was broken on February 16 by House of Representatives member Haruna Yerima (ANPP, Borno), who alleged that some committee members collected gratification from ministers and government agencies to raise their 2005 budget allocations.
And he also accused the House of collecting recharge cards from MTN - worth N2.7 million - for each of the 360 members at N7,500 monthly, to turn a blind eye to the alleged inappropriate business practices of the GSM operator.
Some members of the Senate Committee on Education, it was gathered were also arrested on Thursday. They are being held in the office of one of the security outfits in Abuja.
Sources said other ministers are being discreetly investigated as part of efforts by the government to establish the truth in the allegation.
During the budget defence last year, members of the Senate committee had a shouting match with Osuji and accused him of inflating his ministry's budget.
They threatened to report him to the Presidency.
Efforts to speak to Osuji on Thursday night were not successful. His Press Officer, Tony Ohaeri, denied knowledge of the arrest.
He could not say where Osuji was, but explained that he was likely to be in Abuja, his base.
Yerima made his allegations last month when he was guest on the reporters' monthly Hot Seat programme in Abuja. He said the remote cause of the delay in passing the budget was the disclosure by some lawmakers that most of the committees collected gratification from ministers and heads of agencies to get their allocations increased.
He added that it is now the in-thing for some committee leaders to make "monthly pilgrimages" to government departments in their oversight jurisdiction to either collect money or solicit contract.
Yerima, a member of the anti-graft committee, said "every facet of the National Assembly stinks with corruption, especially the committees, which have become cartels and clearing houses for deceit and corruption.
"The corruption is perpetrated with the active connivance of the House leadership which seems to have caved in to the over bearing influence of the super committee chairmen. The corrupt tendencies of the lawmakers have certainly stalled proper oversight of the government".
He insisted that lawmakers, including those of the opposition parties, fool the people.
"We are not the solution to Nigeria's problems, corruption is worst in the committees. The opposition has also failed. Most of us are contractors only here to make money and check out.
"Most of our debates are beer parlour debates that are laughable and have no meaning to the ordinary Nigerian. The bills are all geared towards reaping off Nigerians.
"The truth is that we lack the capacity to fight corruption in this country. Simply put, the President has pocketed the National Assembly to the extent that if he just orders us to sweep his bedroom, we will do it right ahead, even graciously".
Yerima, did not spare his party, the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP).
He said its members are no different from those of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and that its House Leader, Ahmed Salik, "easily passes as one of the legislative aides" to Speaker Aminu Bello Masari.
The allegations, especially that about MTN recharge cards, forced the House into a prolonged executive session, at where Masari reportedly ordered members to stop collecting them, to avoid creating the wrong impression.
Yerima was later suspended from the House for two weeks.