The World Bank’s vice president for Africa, Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili, and Nigeria’s coordinating minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, had an interesting exchange on fuel oil prices in late December 2011.
Soon after, Oby’s departure from the Bank was after re-announced by Robert Zoellick, and she’s spent a lot of time in Nigeria since. An appointee of Paul Wolfowitz, Ezekwesili leaves the Bank definitively May 1.
Normally, Bank concerns about imminent government policies don’t get such airtime, attention and reaction, on either side. Fuel is underpriced in Nigeria, with the greatest benefits flowing to business interests who smuggle it to neighboring countries, as they have for the last 30 years. It’s clear that many in Nigeria would like Ngozi out of the finance portfolio (a second time), because she challenged the corrupt status quo, but having to deal with the Bank’s vice president for Africa who was, well, a bit hostile to how the measure was being readied for implementation, might have been a bit much for her to take. Her resolute but rather badly defended action in January despite the public uproar and subsequent violence well may account for the adulation she receives in some Nigerian circles, and the uncritical support that amplifies in the global North among male development economists and World Bank retirees.
Ultimately, the government backed down, and restored the fuel subsidies, and now Ngozi presents herself aggressively as a candidate to come back to the World Bank. Well-qualified on paper but more controversial among those who have worked with her, Ngozi’s wish to leave NIgeria (a second time) may also account for her increasing desperation to have the job, and her continuing vocal and exaggerated attacks on the US nominee.
It’s not just about leveling the playing field, or an overdue recognition that the United States does not have the monopoly on qualified candidates, and let’s not pretend it is. Nor is it about “hitting the ground running”. As an insider, it will be the same ground she left free of footprints during her time as Managing Director, when little happened on either “Voice”, her signature initiative during her previous stint as World Bank corporate secretary, or on “modernization”.
Looking at what happened with fuel in Nigeria, let’s remember that Ngozi did instigate another “big bang” as a managing director. Over the advice of the human resources team, which she oversaw, and with no consultation with Bank managers, she announced the abolution of open-ended contracts for new hires. Like the cutting of fuel subsidies, this caused great turmoil, and implementation was clumsy. There were no riots, of course, or interviews with BBC World. Few exceptions were granted, and even when Ngozi was confronted with the fact that the new norm to apply her policy was two year contracts, when “her expectation” was five years, all her ‘concern’ did not translate into either longer initial contracts, or more conversions.
Again, how are we to assess her ability to bring change to the World Bank as president, based on her record as managing director? Is her penchant for dramatic moves, without thinking through implementation details and gathering stakeholder support, the way to bring to the World Bank the change it needs and that insiders who haven’t retired are keen to see?