Nigerian ex-finmin Okonjo-Iweala quits government

By Felix Onuah

ABUJA- Nigerian Foreign Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who as finance minister reformed the economy and negotiated Africa’s biggest ever debt cancellation, has resigned, a government statement said on Thursday.

The resignation comes days a

fter President Olusegun Obasanjo removed her from the head of the country’s economic team, a position she had retained after she was unexpectedly reassigned from finance to foreign affairs on June 21 with no reason given.

“Mr President has today received a letter of resignation from the minister of foreign affairs, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,” said a statement from the secretary general of the federation.

“In accepting the resignation, Mr President has expressed regret that the minister had to leave at this stage of our reform programme when various measures adopted by this administration were beginning to yield positive results,” the statement said.

It quoted Obasanjo as accepting Okonjo-Iweala’s resignation “based on your compelling need to take care of pressing family issues”. Obasanjo paid tribute to the “monumental achievements recorded by Nigeria during your tenure as minister of finance”.

Okonjo-Iweala is a former World Bank executive whom Obasanjo head-hunted in 2003 to clean up the collapsed finances of Africa’s most populous nation and top oil producer.

Some analysts have voiced fears that her removal may signal a reversal of the reform programme she spearheaded but others say her policies will live on. Her successor as finance minister, Nenadi Usman, has repeatedly said she would stick to fiscal prudence introduced by Okonjo-Iweala.

“To me, this doesn’t indicate that we’re going to see a reversal of the reforms and that’s the key issue. There’s some sort of personal dispute going on,” said Stephen Bailey-Smith, emerging markets strategist at Standard Bank in London.

LEGACY

Okonjo-Iweala was in London, negotiating a new debt relief deal in her capacity as head of the economic team, when news that Obasanjo had dismissed her from that position filtered out on Wednesday.

No public explanation has been given for the apparent rift between Obasanjo and Okonjo-Iweala, who is popular with foreign investors who approved of her prudent macro-economic management.

“Obasanjo was jittery about her popularity and felt she was stealing credit for the economic reforms,” said a presidency source.

Obasanjo must step down after elections scheduled for April 2007. An attempt to rewrite the constitution to allow him to stand for a third term was defeated by the Senate on May 16 and analysts say he is now “in legacy mode”.

“She (Okonjo-Iweala) was removed because she was becoming identified with the successes of this government and he wants to demonstrate that he is the boss driving everything,” said a source close to the former minister.

Okonjo-Iweala, a straight-talking technocrat with no background in diplomacy, lasted only six weeks as foreign minister.

Under her guidance as finance minister, Nigeria took advantage of high oil prices that boosted the value of its exports to save up more than $30 billion in foreign reserves — in sharp contrast to decades of profligacy and mismanagement.

Her crowning achievement was a debt relief deal that saw Nigeria use windfall oil revenues to pay off $12 billion in debts to the Paris Club of creditor nations in exchange for a write-off of a further $18 billion. — Reuter