Friday, 19 December 2014

Golden Girl and the Icarus Paradox

By Temitope Oshikoya

This article was published by The Guardian of Nigeria on 8 September, 2014
This piece was first written on Saturday, 27 September 2014 before the drastic decline in oil prices and its severe impact on the Nigerian economy, which has exposed the underbelly of Okonjonomics. As the tide ebbs, now we know those who have been swimming naked! Enjoy the article.

 ICARUS of Greek mythology was the son of Daedalus. They both escaped from the Island of Crete, flying with wings made of wax and feathers. Ignoring his father's warnings, Icarus flew too near the Sun and melted his own wings, fell in the sea and drowned. Paradoxically, his greatest assets, the wings that enabled him to fly in the first place turned into his liabilities and, as he ignored sound advice, led to his demise. Danny Miller's book "Icarus Paradox" drew an analogy of businesses and CEOs that failed abruptly after a period of apparent success, due to the blinding effects of arrogance, overconfidence, exaggeration, and hubris. With flattery from close associates, they are blinded to reality leading to their downfall as their greatest assets paradoxically turn into liabilities.

To many of us, Ngozi Okonjo-Iwaela (NOI) is Nigeria's golden girl. After a stint learning the politics and ropes of the World Bank, NOI rose to the position of one of its Managing Directors. Before then, she had served as a Vice President at the World Bank and as Nigeria's Minister of Finance, and briefly as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Her first home coming as a Minister of Finance had a lot to write about: for one, NOI played a role in obtaining Nigeria's debt write-off. NOI became not only Nigeria's golden girl, but a global celebrity.

The first sign of the Icarus Paradox: success tends to get to people's head. In 2006, NOI left the Government abruptly thinking she was indispensable with her new found celebrity status. The Financial Times of London in its editorial remarked essentially that NOI was not the only economic star in the debt relief firmament. It was a team work, with the then Nigerian President providing political cover. Unfortunately, even with the second home-coming of NOI, she has not learnt to swim in an ocean of humility. For a start, it is difficult to understand why NOI prefers to be called Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy (CEM), treating herself as a Prime Minister and an economic octopus with tentacles everywhere, except for ego pursuit and hubris. It appears that the golden girl enjoys the title of CEM, but tries to avoid accepting responsibilities for failures arising thereof. She became a polarizing figure to the Nigerian Economic Society in an attempt to be awarded its Fellowship. Eventually, she was given the award.

The second sign of the Icarus Paradox: over-exaggeration of her self-importance. We already have a Chief Economic Adviser to the President, who should actually be the CEM, coordinating inputs from different economic ministries (including the Ministry of Finance, Planning, Trade and Industry, Agriculture, etc.) and distilling them to provide thought leadership and unbiased professional economic advice to the President on the economy, while ensuring awareness among Nigerians on key economic issues; much the same as the National Security Adviser on security issues. To discerning observers, it is clear that the National Security Adviser has been, at least, trying to articulate national security issues, and ensuring awareness among Nigerians, and engaging key stakeholders about the cocktail of possible national security policy menu including socio-economic development software coupled with military hardware infrastructure needed to resolve our current complex security dilemma, especially on Boko Haram, and even on Ebola. In contrast, and very unfortunately, NOI has rendered the position of the Chief Economic Adviser to the President irrelevant; making it an appendage of her Ministry and her speech-writer on nothing to write about on pertinent economic issues facing the country.

The third sign of the Icarus Paradox: the blinding impacts of adulation and flattery to reality on the ground. NOI has not only lost her own professional economics edge, she has succeeded in outsourcing externally economic thought leadership on our economy to non-Nigerians, as for instance, during the national subsidy issue, for which her professional credibility was severely dented. The subsidy episode backfired badly for her. Recently, a McKinsey Report and an op-ed on Nigeria in Project Syndicate, distribute commentaries worldwide. Unfortunately, from a professional economics perspective, the Mckinsey's Report is at best methodologically flawed and, at worst, reads like using cooked data to drive a particular perspective to favour the minister. This is the same McKinsey that was busy dishing out strategic advice to some Nigerian banks that later failed spectacularly during the banking crisis of 2009. Witness also the latest attempt by the staff of the World Bank trying to prop-up the image of its former Managing Director. All of a sudden, according to the World Bank's staff Report, Nigeria's unemployment rate has magically dropped by more than half to 10%; against the stack reality on the ground.

The fourth sign of the Icarus Paradox: complacency. All these image laundering and gymnastics are happening at a time when NOI should be focusing her energy in helping the Government and the President to tackle unemployment crisis, especially among the youth; reduce Nigeria's Misery Index of 48, the third rank among 90 countries; and attenuate the deepening socio-economic inequality. Rather, NOI spent too much space and time hobnobbing with the ultra-rich oligarchs, who have no business being on Nigeria's Economic Management Team, except to further their own interest and to ensure that key appointments to government economic agencies are to their favour. This particular disturbing trend has already been observed by some public analysts noting that NOI appears to think that the best economic policy and regulatory managers are bred only from her geo-ethnic circles. This is self-evident from the headships of key economic and financial related agencies: AMCON, CBN, SEC, NSE, DMO, BPE, NSIA, NMRC, FRC, Pension, Budget, Procurement Regulation, Performance Monitoring, and Chief Economic Adviser, to mention a few.

The fifth sign of the Icarus Paradox: arrogance and lack of respect for others. One of the tactics NOI has deployed is to pretend that she is using professional search firms to recruit for some of these positions. But discerning Nigerians have seen through the smokescreen and her systematic efforts to favour only people within her regional circle. It was significant that the National Assembly refused to play ball with the position of the Executive Chairman of the FIRS, which remains in an acting capacity for more than two years. NOI has been trying to use the same tactics with the headship position of another institution under her purview. The process of selecting for this position began in earnest in the third quarter of 2013, with the expectation that by January 2014, it would have been completed. She finally acceded to a meeting in June 2014, then postponed it again for another three weeks in July, and further delayed the process for more than three hours on the scheduled date of Sunday afternoon, and when some people were fasting. She is still sitting on the process.

In 2005, some of us had also witnessed first-hand how NOI, out of self-interest, practically frustrated the candidacy of a Nigerian to the position of the Presidency of the African Development Bank (ADB). The same argument that she deployed against the Nigerian was, with the twist of fate, turned against her in her quest to become the President of the World Bank; after more than two decades at the World Bank, she does not have any new and fresh ideas to bring to the institution. Thanks to NOI, Nigeria has not only lost influence and pivotal position at the ADB; the potential candidacy of Nigeria's Minister of Agriculture to the Presidency of this continental organization may be equally frustrated if adequate care is not taken. On the other hand, NOI would readily support people from her region to positions at the IMF and the African Capacity Building Foundation.

Judging by Nigeria's high misery index, unemployment crisis, and a job-less growth in a period of high oil prices, NOI, as the Minister of Finance and CEM, has either simply been taking Nigerians for a ride on the economy or blindsided to the economic realities on the ground. Unlike those deluding her with adulation and flattery, it is far better to openly let her realize the blinding effects of her own Icarus Paradox of overconfidence, exaggeration, ego trip and hubris on Nigeria's weighty economic matters. We appeal to the goodwill of President Goodluck Jonathan, our own Daedalus and father figures to all Nigerians, to curb the un-golden practices of the golden girl, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, so that she can avoid the Icarus paradox.

- Dr. Oshikoya is an economist and chartered banker.



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