Here’s a hilarious joke: a certain Finance Minister convinced her country to pay off its debts because debt was bad, then proceeded to borrow country back into debt. It’s a riot, I tell you! Why aren’t you laughing? You’ve heard that one before or it’s not as funny when you realise the joke is on your country? We all remember when Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was first appointed as Minister of Finance under the government of Baba. She arrived wreathed in glowing World Bank recommendations (which should have been a huge red flag, but more on that later), and told us we needed to pay off the Paris Club and other international loan sharks we were in hock to. Never mind that these guys were fully aware at the time that the money they “loaned” Nigeria ended up in the pockets of a few men in power and then routed back to their economies via numbered bank accounts, the payments were crippling our economy and had to end. Naturally, several people spoke against that course of action, pointing out that given the crooked nature of the debts, we should be asking them to write them off, especially as Nigeria had not enjoyed the benefits of the debts, but had been crippled by the payment terms written into the loan agreements such as the infamous Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), and the devaluation of the Naira, which ensured we couldn’t pay back the loan on good terms, what with our currency suddenly going all Zimbabwe on us and all. NOI, however, was not to be deterred, and she eventually pushed through the repayment of some $30 billion to the Paris Club, IMF and others. It was an unprecedented move, and I am sure not a few other countries looked at us as traitors given that we could now be used as an example to them. “Nigeria paid us off, so stop bitching about us gifting billions of dollars to corrupt dictators and taking said billions back and using them to develop our own economies at your expense while expecting you to pay us for the privilege over the next 50 years or so (if you don’t default).” NOI promised that the savings from debt repayments would be ploughed back into our economy via the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and that we would all be vastly better off as a result. If that particular line sounds eerily familiar to you, it’s because it is *cough* SURE-P *cough*. It is no secret that we are actually not on track to meet the MDGs, and our currency was never revalued after we were certified as being debt free (why that never happened, nobody has been able to explain). Hell, even SURE-P (sounds suspiciously like “shut up” if you say it fast enough) didn’t have the touted impact it was supposed to either, but that’s not NOI’s concern. We paid off our debts, NOI collected a bunch of awards, and when she and Baba fell out, there was a nice big desk waiting for her at the World Bank, probably with a few truckloads of roses and champagne, and official letters of commendation for a job spectacularly well done. Fast forward a few years, and following the untimely demise of President Umaru Yar’Adua, President Goodluck Jonathan took office, and one of his first acts was to invite NOI back to Nigeria to be his Finance Minister on steroids: he made her “Coordinating Minister of the Economy”, a level of power even Baba (enamoured of her World Bank credentials as he was) never gave her. One day, NOI led a team to China, and borrowed a few million dollars for a light rail project. When asked why she was borrowing money we probably could have earned in less than a week for a project that wasn’t an emergency, NOI said with a straight face, “Not all debt is bad.” And I cracked up. You see, many comedians get you laughing with their antics, facial expressions and whatnot, but it takes a true comedic genius to make you laugh when punch lines are delivered with a straight face and a grave tone. For those of you who have no idea what that’s like, I urge you to watch Leslie Nielsen’s performance in “Airplane”, or Andre Braugher in “Brooklyn 99”. NOI was in comedic übergenius territory for sure. A decade hadn’t passed since she made us pay off our debts, and here she was borrowing money we didn’t even need on the basis that “not all debt is bad”, and saying it with the straightest face you would ever see. It was “Don’t call me ‘Shirley’” territory, and the punch line was this: she has straight up borrowed us back into debt to the tune of over N5 trillion (that’s about $25 billion at today’s exchange rate). If that isn’t a command performance, I don’t know what qualifies, I really don’t. It’s not really a secret that when you borrow money from a bank, the bank’s interest is in the interest, so to speak. Ergo, the bank will secure collateral for the loan, and ensure that the terms are written in a manner which maximises its profit from the loan. If you default, goodbye collateral, and whatever else the bank needs to take from you to satisfy the debt. When you’re dealing with the World Bank, their interest is control of your economy and economic policies, because if you were desperate enough to go to them in the first place, you’d sign away your left testicle and your first three children just to get the loan. Then they tell you what policies to implement, not to improve your economy so you can pay them back, but to cripple you so you can’t pay them back, and they remain in charge. So, you would have to be truly out of your flipping mind to appoint one of their senior officers as your Finance Minister not once, but twice! Can you imagine the delighted whooping when the Board was told Nigeria wanted NOI back for seconds? They must think we’re machinists or something. And ask yourself, as Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, has NOI actually improved Nigeria’s economy? There’s the subsidy scam, during the hearings over which NOI couldn’t tell Nigerians who spent N1 trillion of our money on subsidies without legislative approval, and during which we also learned that she ordered the Customs Service to waive inspections of incoming petroleum cargo, which was like the USS Missouri firing a full broadside against a line of mud huts. Then the international oil price tumbled (which any amateur with a passing interest in international finance would have seen coming) and caught us embarrassingly pants down and totally unprepared, and we’ve been forced to devalue our currency again, while NOI prepared fantasy budgets with oil price projections not seen anywhere else in the world, and assured us she had “intelligence” to support her budgets. Several construction firms (including the almighty Julius Berger) have been forced to lay off staff because the government (their biggest customer) isn’t paying for all the roads and bridges they’re supposed to be building with all that SURE-P money, and they have no other way to support their payrolls, but she constantlyt assures us that there is no problem. Then there’s the issue of the sudden chronic shortage of petrol, which she constantly reassures us will be taken care of “this week”. She’s like the proverbial pilot assuring the passengers that all is well, while hastily fastening the parachute straps and making sure the door isn’t jammed. I am almost sad that she will be out of a job soon, with all the comedic moments she’s given us. But then again, she probably has an even bigger desk waiting for her in Washington. They may even have to bring the USS Missouri out of retirement to house all the champagne, roses, and commendation letters.

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