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Courage of the woman fighting to rid Nigeria of corruption

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Oct. 27--Mention the words Africa and corruption in polite company, and those present might immediately assume you are talking about Nigeria. This sprawling country, with its enormous oil wealth and huge population, has become synonymous with all that appears to be wrong with the continent -- from the waste of a great natural resource to human rights abuses and ethnic strife.

In a recent league table of the most corrupt nations on earth, Nigeria was sixth in a list of 159. However, despite its negative image, the country is changing fast.

Earlier this month, in an unprecedented action, the Paris Club of rich creditor countries agreed to cancel $16bn of outstanding debt. This is being seen as evidence that one of Africa's potentially prosperous states is on the mend.

The traditional Western image of Nigeria as crime-ridden provokes anger among members of its current reforming government.

When I put these charges to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the charismatic finance minister, she rebuts them passionately.

"In the country now, 99.99pc of Nigerians are honest, hardworking people who just want to earn a living like everyone else."

She adds: "The point is, we should not be typecast because of the tiny few who have a bad reputation. It's like in the past saying that all Italians are mobsters. That's wrong.

"We are working very hard to do away with this reputation. We've got the three kingpins behind bars now," she exclaims.

The minister is resplendent in a green and red native costume, with a fine string of matching natural stones around her neck.

She was in London for a conference to encourage more private investment in Africa, and it was on the fringes of this gathering that our meeting took place.

Okonjo-Iweala gave up the comfort of the World Bank and a large home in the suburbs of Washington to take on the mission to reform her country.

She is currently one of only two female finance ministers in the world -- the other is Luisa Diogo, who combines the post with being prime minister of Mozambique.

It is clear that Okonjo-Iweala is already a star among Africa's economic and business elite.

In a panel discussion on how to encourage foreign investment, everyone else is ignored and the questions are directed at her.

As she steps down from the podium her fans follow her, eagerly plying her with more questions and seeking to make themselves known.

Even a slim, young black representative of Shell -- Nigeria's partner in the country's energy extraction -- thrusts a business card into her hand as she sweeps along, trailing yards of cloth behind her.

Okonjo-Iweala, a protege of former World Bank boss James Wolfensohn, joined President Olusegun Obasanjo's government in July 2003.

Since then, she has worked tirelessly in the face of personal danger to end corruption and bring order to Nigeria's chaotic economic management.

"We've identified which areas of corruption are the largest," she asserts. "We found that in public contracting it was five times higher than in neighbouring countries.

"In two years we have managed to save about $1bn by auditing all the contracts and putting them out to international competitive bidding."

Her clampdown is paying dividends, as Western private sector companies are now more willing to come knocking at Nigeria's door.

The telecoms sector has been deregulated and, as a result, some $2bn of investment has poured in from overseas. Among the investors is Sir Richard Branson.

"He recently invested in a new airline," says the finance minister with some pride. "It's called Virgin Nigeria.

"It attracted $25m of institutional investment from within Nigeria. It is flying internally, but also has a London route and has opened a gateway to Prague."

It is widely imagined that Nigeria ought to be a much richer country than it is because of its vast oil and gas resources.

And indeed, it would be much richer if cash from the oil industry had not been wasted or spirited away to Switzerland during the bad old days before the Obasanjo government took office in 1999. Okonjo-Iweala's contribution is to take a leaf out of Gordon Brown's book and put in place fiscal rules based around the price of oil.

"We have been fiscally prudent," she explains. "In the past, when we had high oil prices we had high spending. When the oil price fell we didn't have much.

"Now, for the first time, we've instituted an oil price-base fiscal rule, meaning we are delivering for the price at which it is budgeted.

"We budgeted at $25 a barrel last year and at $30 in 2005, and that has enabled us to accumulate some savings.

"We have gone to a surplus from an average deficit of 3.5pc of national wealth over the past five to ten years.

"This is a break with Nigeria's past. We had an oil boom in the 70s and 80s and a bit of the 90s, and we didn't save. We spent it."

Not only that, but Okonjo-Iweala has been leading the fight, with the president, to recover the lost billions. We have recovered $2bn so far," she reveals. "We recently recovered a further $500m by fighting our way through the Swiss courts. We have been able to certify that $500m was legitimately Nigeria's money and was stolen from us."

Nonetheless, the minister points out that the surpluses are a drop in the ocean as far as development is concerned.

As the joint owner of the oilfields, Nigeria reinvests $5bn a year in further exploration and facilities. After this the country receives around $25bn net -- a tidy sum.

But Okonjo-Iweala emphasises that Nigeria has a huge population of 130million. "People should realise that even if oil prices were to double in real terms, Nigeria's average income per person would only be $600. We are just $320 now."

The most surprising thing about her stewardship of the economy of her native land is that it happened at all.

A handsome woman, she was born in the village of Raqwashiuku in the mid-West of the country. Both her parents were academics. Her mother had a PhD in sociology and her father a doctorate in mathematical economics.

The young Ngozi was sent to a Nigerian boarding school based on the British public school model, but financed by the state. There she sat her GCSEs and Alevels before winning a place at Cambridge. But she went to Harvard because her mother was researching and teaching at the neighbouring Boston University.

She married a Nigerian medical student who trained in Manchester, where she joined him and two of her four children were born there.

Okonjo-Iweala joined the World Bank in 1982, journeying across the globe for 20 years from the Middle East to Mongolia.

After the election of President Obasanjo in 2000 she heard the call of her homeland and took leave of absence from the Bank before being persuaded to become finance minister.

Her new job keeps her apart from her husband, who has a private medical practice in the US and works at a local Roman Catholic hospital.

If there is anything she really regrets, it is her long-distance marriage. She says emotionally: "I miss him terribly, I have to say that."

As an executive vice-president of the Bank, Okonjo-Iweala earned $240,000 a year. Now, as Nigeria's economic supremo, her salary is just $9,000.

Financing her children's education has become a struggle, with one taking a year off from his medical studies to try to help. "It is not all sweetness and light for them," she says.

But her enthusiasm for development is as infectious as ever.

She declares: "We still have some way to go in terms of delivery of better water supply, better education and health.

"But it is power that will liberate people in rural areas. If they have power, women do not have to grind the corn and the pepper manually."

Despite all the odds against her, somehow Okonjo-Iweala seems to be on the right track.


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Copyright (c) 2005, Daily Mail, London

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