Leadership (Abuja)

Nigeria: Why Okonjo-Iweala Quit Obasanjo Govt - El-Rufai

Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala parted ways with former President Olusegun Obasanjo because of her removal as the Chairman of the Economic Team of the government while she was in London negotiating with London Club.

Former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, made this disclosure in his memoir -The Accidental Public Servant - where narrated his experiences while in government and private practice.

Being a key member of the powerful and influential Economic Team of the Obasanjo years, el-Rufai recalled how the team was assembled, and it included Okonjo-Iweala, the minister of state for finance Nenadi Usman [now a senator], FCT minister el-Rufai, the Economic Adviser to the President and later the Central Bank Governor Charles Soludo, the EFCC boss Nuhu Ribadu, and the Director-General, Bureau of Public Procurement [Due Process] Mrs. Oby Ezekwezili. Okonjo-Iweala was the chairman.

According to e-Rufai's account, trouble began when Obasanjo decided to redeploy Okonjo-Iweala as the minister of Foreign Affairs and Ezekwezili, the Education Minister from the Solid Minerals,with Nenadi Usman becoming the Finance Minister without seeking their input or consent.

"One morning, in May of 2006, shortly after the third term effort collapsed, Obasanjo called me aside after the economic management team meeting, and said he was going to reshuffle the cabinet that day. The plan he had, he confided in me, was to move Ngozi to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to fix some persistent problems in our international relations, Oby to the ministry of education and Nenadi Usman as full cabinet minister of finance. Obasanjo said he needed me to help manage the emotions and reactions of those affected."

According to his account, Obasanjo brought him in to forestall a situation where the duo of Okonjo-Iweala and Ezekwezili would embarrass him by quitting his government as a reaction. He said calming down the two was a herculean task when he broke the news of the impending cabinet reshuffle to them.

Although the two burst into tears, Ngozi quickly adjusted and asked who would then be the chairman of the Economic Team.

"I did not have an answer so I went back to Obasanjo and asked. He said that Nenadi as minister of finance must chair the economic team, unless she was unwilling to do so. I then went up to Nenadi who seemed to have a foreknowledge of the reshuffle and looked like she knew she was going to replace Ngozi, and talked to her," el-Rufai wrote.

"I confirmed to her that Obasanjo had just told me about it and we needed to meet to agree a few housekeeping issues. She followed me to the location outside the Council Chambers where Ngozi and Oby were tearfully talking in inaudible tones. We then had a four-person meeting where Nenadi agreed that Ngozi should not only continue to chair the economic team, but maintain the interface with international financial institutions until she felt ready to take that over. I reported our consultations and decision to a reluctant Obasanjo, who agreed to the arrangement but only as 'interim measure'. This would be the beginning of our team tensions."

The former Minister further revealed that both arrangement did not go down well with both Okonjo-Iweala, who is painted as 'a pragmatic student of power' and Usman but both pretended as if they were satisfied. According to him, "Ngozi never ceased to think of herself as finance minister to the exclusion of Nenadi, and Nenadi resented the suggestion that she could not chair the economic team."

To buttress his point, el-Rufai disclosed how Oknojo-Iweala were playing host to the IMF and World Bank teams in her new office instead of Finance Ministry. He said he had to caution her to stop doing so else "It will cause unnecessary problems."

The bubble however burst when Oknojo-Iweala went to meet the London Club to negotiate the write-off of Nigeria's modest London Club debts without the knowledge of Mrs Usman although she sought and got the approval of Obasanjo. But when the matter was brought before the President, "On the spot, Obasanjo decided to remove Ngozi as chair of the economic team, right away, without any discussion, consultation or notice, as Ngozi was in the middle of the crucial negotiations. All of the major newswires carried news of the firing of Ngozi from chairing the economic team and in the midst of meeting with her European counterparts; everyone was looking at their Blackberries and asking her if she was still authorized to continue the negotiations. It was no doubt a totally humiliating moment for Ngozi...She called Obasanjo from London and informed him of her decision to resign. He did nothing to dissuade her. She returned to Nigeria, submitted her resignation, packed her things, and just left, at first for Lagos, then went abroad. She was very angry at the President, at the situation, and at all of us. She expected all of us to also resign as part of our pact, but she forgot the part of the agreement that required us to consult, to talk, to discuss, and agree together."

According to his account, it was the then Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Kanu Agabi, SAN that introduced Nuhu Ribadu to Obasanjo, and it was his appointment as the EFCC chairman that brought the two together especially as he was instrumental to the N100m the take-off money for the commission. It was a mutual friend that introduced Okonjo-Iweala to him while on six month assignment for the administration and how he was part of the catalyst that facilitated her appointment as the Finance Minister. It was both the Finance Minister and Ezekwezili with General Mohammed Abdullahi, the Chief of Staff to Obasanjo that in-turn facilitated his emergence as a Minister.

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