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There was a Country – A personal history of Biafra

Indeed, there was a country; at least according to the account of the Nigerian prolific writer, Chinua Achebe. Despite the seemingly disorganised and hasty implementation of Ojukwu’s ideas, the short-lived Biafra was ready to take on the world. The people of Biafra were determined to succeed, which according to Achebe was the most important driving force behind the secessionist regime. He gave a glowing praise of the Igbo people and their crave for excellence. This was perhaps balanced with the identification of loudness and self-centeredness as key weaknesses of an average Igbo man.

In his new book titled “There was a country – a personal history of Biafra”, Achebe gave his account of the Nigerian civil war between 1967 and 1970. It was a beautiful piece, especially because it was supposed to be an account of his experience of the war. Although his account is mostly opinionated, its analytical depth is magical. Achebe displayed his greatness in the art of writing with a combination of his personal experience and the analysis of other people’s accounts and comments about what happened during the period.

Aptly titled as the personal history of Biafra, Achebe started the book with his own history; the history of his ancestors and his childhood development. Achebe displayed his admiration of British colonial masters for bequeathing a very well structured and properly managed civil service to Nigeria at the point of their exit to the admiration of the African continent. It was such glorious that he also took up a career with the government and was at a time a management staff at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He lost everything to the civil war.

Achebe recounted his family’s ordeal during the war, moving from places to places in search of security from the invading federal troop. He also narrowly escaped being bombed in his house in Enugu. However, most often than not, his analysis and opinions conflict with some earlier held believes about the war and what led to it. As much as he tried to present a balanced story, he appears to focus more on rebuking the other major Nigerian tribes while placing the Igbos on a righteous yet persecuted pedestal. He did his best to present a slight different story from the earlier available ones, especially in his bid to exonerate the Igbos of any complicity in the events leading to the war and thus may have spooked serious controversies. He might be right, but a polarised Nigerian society will definitely not hear that.

The manner in which he characterises some of the gladiators of the era also generated controversies. His opinion of the supremacy battle between Gowon and Ojukwu and how it played out significant on the war despite the hardship on the civilians was not well taken. In fact, his opinion that Obafemi Awolowo might have supported the genocide against the Igbos so that he can govern a larger country, Nigeria generated unanticipated reactions.

As controversial as the story appears to be, it was a classy piece. According to Nadine Gordimer who reviewed the book, “Achebe has created a new genre of literature in which politico-historical evidence, the power of storytelling, and revelations from the depths of the human subconscious are one.” Finally, it is a personal memoir! An account and analysis of Achebe’s opinion of Biafra’s potential greatness (had it survived), and what really happened to stop its realisation. He has the right to it, his opinion.

  • Written by The Analyst
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Reforming the Unreformable - Lessons from Nigeria

When Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (NOI) was asked why she returned to serve as the Nigerian Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy despite her previous experience on the job in the mid 2000’s; the media harassment and threat to her life, all she could say was that she has passion for her job and she believes in her country. She noted that there are better qualified persons who could have taken up the job but they are either scared or not interested. Most appropriately, they might have given up on Nigeria.

But that is not the case with NOI. Having successfully started the process to reform the perceived “unreformable” Nigeria, she considered it expedient to push the process further and probably see it to completion. In her 198 paged book, “Reforming the unreformable – lessons from Nigeria” which was published in 2012 by MIT Press, Okonjo-Iweala gave a sweet and sour account of what transpired at the capitol.

Setting the stage for reform was brilliant

The oracle of Delphi adjudged Socrates as the wisest man in his time because he understood his limitation and accepted that he was not wise at all. So did NOI in 2005. Noting the limit of her knowledge in managing the Nigerian situation, NOI approached Jim Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank and Amaury Bier, Brazil’s former deputy finance minister for advice which proved very useful in her assignment.  Bier’s advice were invaluable; one, set up an economic team of like minds that “can stick together to fight the tough battles” and two, develop a “comprehensive strategy that would set out the major challenges and the reforms needed to turn these around”. An economic team of 13 members was thus formed and a national strategy document named “National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS)” was developed.  And in order to get the involvement of all the federating units, the State Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (SEEDS) and the Local Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (LEEDS) were also developed, thus setting the platform for the needed reforms.

Macroeconomic reforms first, then other reforms follow

Due to the over-dependence on oil revenues for economic functionality, Nigerian economy was susceptible to volatility in oil prices. The volatilities experienced by the economy over the last several years make a case for the reform of the countries budgeting process, which happened to be the first target of the Okonjo-Iweala’s economic team.  Part of the important tasks the team achieved was to encourage long term investments and spending discipline through a clear and consistent budget process. The economic team therefore introduced a medium term macroeconomic program and institutionalised the oil price-based fiscal rule (OPFR) through the adoption of a Fiscal Responsibility Act.

Privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation of public enterprises achieved a great success especially in telecommunications sector and the ports. The reform of the energy sector, comprising of power, oil and gas was not so successful but some progress were made in each of the subsectors.

According to NOI, sectoral reforms delivered mixed results. While the reform of the financial services industry, led by the banking sector was judged to be successful, the reform of the civil service was only partly successful. In the aftermath of the banking reforms, Nigerian banks, through mergers and acquisitions were reduced to 25 from 89 but with bigger capital bases. The banks raised the equivalent of US$3 billion from the local capital market and attracted about US$650m of foreign direct investment, leading to a significant growth on all indicators before most of the achievements were eroded by the global financial crisis. On the other hand, the success of the civil service reform was at best incomplete due to lack of buy-in by most civil servants and ministers.

Perhaps the worst experience was in her attempt at trade, tariff and customs reforms. As she stated, customs reform, in particular, was a failure. All her efforts at turning the Nigerian customs services into a modern operation were rebuffed, even at the cabinet level.

However, obtaining debt relief was a huge success

Perhaps the most challenging but rewarding of all her efforts was in obtaining debt relief for the country and it turns out that that was the most important reason (if not sole) for her appointment by the Obasanjo government. Through a lot of hardwork, lobbying and politicking, Nigeria became the first country to obtain such relief from private creditors and the approach became a template for other developing countries. According to the author, the debt relief opened several hitherto closed doors to Nigeria on investment front and allowed Nigeria to obtain its first-ever sovereign credit ratings from Fitch and from Standard & Poor’s.

We recommend this book for read. Not only did it present a template for economic management and administration, it also discusses the mistakes to avoid when navigating such political terrains, some of which appears to remain ubiquitous today in countries in sub-Saharan Africa in general and Nigeria in particular. 

  • Written by The Analyst
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