Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, talks about her office, career and family life in this candid interview
Of recent, you’ve sounded upbeat about our economic prospects despite the recession, why do you think Nigerians should share your optimism?
I am unapologetically optimistic about Nigeria, despite our very real challenges because we are facing our reality like never before. The painful truth is that we had been heading in this direction for over a decade; despite high oil prices, we were borrowing more and yet our Gross Domestic Product growth was trending downwards. We were not investing in the right things, the outcome of that being an increase in poverty and unemployment at the very time that income levels were at their highest.
This administration is aware of the pain and hardship and is facing the issues that will fundamentally reset our economy head on. What will create wealth and jobs by letting businesses grow is our infrastructure and that is what we are focused on; our roads, rail, and airports. Consider how many new jobs we would have if just 10 per cent of the produce decaying in our farms due to poor roads was saved. What if we reduce waste by 50 per cent? Consider how much more we could export if a container could move from Kano to Lagos or Port Harcourt by rail in 12 hours instead of six days by road. Our lack of infrastructure is what has made us uncompetitive in so many sectors where we have potential, and caused us to import what we could and should produce.
Despite the fact that there is less money available to the government and conditions are tough, we are addressing these historical challenges because we know that in the long run, it is the only way that this economy will be able to grow. We are doing more with less. Now, when you add the enabling infrastructure, the work being done on ease of doing business with the natural talent and entrepreneurism of our people, it is easy to become very optimistic about our long term future.
What should Nigerians expect in 2017, economically?
I believe that the economy will stabilise and return to growth. The rapid drop in GDP was driven by the events in the Niger Delta and there is considerable energy being expended on solving this. For the non-oil economy, we are already seeing some encouraging signs in a few sectors and we are going to support them with a policy framework. Food security is very important and with 170 million people, we cannot rely on imports before we eat. Already, agriculture is growing but we will be doing much more to encourage agricultural and food processing. This will both create jobs and bring down food prices.
I think the real game changer will be the SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises). This represents 50 per cent of our economy, so getting this sector growing is critical. We are rolling out considerable support to this important sector which is where the initial job creation will occur. We have resurrected the Development Bank of Nigeria project. This is an excellent project with the African Development Bank (AfDB), the German Development Institution and others, which had been stalled. This is critical as it will provide US$1.3bn of funding to SMEs through microfinance lenders. Having a dedicated bank funding this sector will unleash opportunities.
Recently, you launched a series of initiatives and interventions: rooting out ghost workers etc. What motivates you and what do you intend to achieve?
Forty per cent of Nigerian government spending is on wages and salaries. As I said earlier, we need funds to invest in roads, rail, power and the enablers of growth in the economy. So to me, any naira that is wasted or paid to the wrong person is naira that should have been spent on our infrastructure.
When I resumed office, I found that the expected controls over payroll just did not exist. My background as an accountant tells me that your largest area of expense should have the tightest controls but this was not the case. We were spending N165bn each month but there were no system reports to confirm who authorised people added to the system, there were no prompt notifications whether people had died or resigned. The Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPS) project was moving at a snail’s pace, some agencies were determined not to comply and were frustrating the project for their own reasons.
I investigated how much data the BVN project could provide such that we would not need to physically see the staff at the initial stage. As soon as it was confirmed that we could access BVN data to clean up our payroll, Nigeria Interbank Settlement System (NIBBS) helped us identify those collecting multiple salaries.
The work on payroll is ongoing, every day we identify people who should no longer be receiving payment and we remove them. Some of this was due to error and others, as a result of fraud. Those involved in fraud, including some staff of the Ministry of Finance have been handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
However, we still have challenges. Recently, a number of agencies complained that their budget allocation was low and claimed supplements. At first, the number was relatively small, which we thought to be due to budgeting issues but it grew rapidly. So we became suspicious, we sent teams from our Presidential Initative on Continuous Audit (PICA) to investigate a sample. We found that many agencies had inflated their payroll claims. Apart from fast tracking their enrolment on IPPIS, we are changing our procedures, so that on a monthly basis, the accounting officer must certify the amount spent on wages.
It is a huge battle but it is one that with technology, we will win. Don’t be surprised to see the numbers removed from payroll increase further in 2017.
What is your response to those who say that you are somewhat not qualified to lead Africa’s largest economy?
I am not sure how to respond really, I think it is a distraction. Times change and the needs of the Nigerian economy change with it as well. The problems we are grappling with as a nation need practical hands-on solutions, not theoretical ones.
There is no theory of economics that suggests that an economy can grow doing what we have been doing, where 90 per cent of spending was recurrent and only 10 per cent capital. When there are no limits and boundaries on the application of public funds, an economy cannot grow. Before our Efficiency Unit started work, agencies were spending up to N15, 000 per head on meals for a meeting, now, it has been capped at N1,500. In 2015 we spent only N19bn on roads but we spent N64bn on travel. Those are not theoretical issues; they are practical problems that have left us in trouble.
When you allow people to steal brazenly, there is no text book theory needed to tell you there is a need to enhance controls and reporting or you will have problems. When dead people get a monthly salary or one person gets 20 salaries, the problems are practical and they need meticulous and practical solutions. I have been a finance professional for 26 years; I qualified in the United Kingdom as a chartered accountant in 1994. I have done accounting, consulting, investment banking, and worked in the public sector in the UK and Nigeria. I have the skills to get the job done and I am supported by an excellent team.
How do you feel when you or the government is criticised vehemently as Nigerians are known to do?
I believe that public officials pay a price and feedback from the public whether good or bad is part of the system. However, on the economy, I think that Nigerians have not been told what the real issues are and we don’t want to believe that we let things get so bad. Somehow, we thought that we were doing well and now, we are being told we have a problem. It is a culture shock.
Do you think that your new initiative, which seeks to incentivise whistleblowers with an offer of five per cent of recovered corruption loot, would realise all its objectives?
Actually that is not my initiative. It was worked on by the Presidential Council on Asset Recovery, chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and includes, the EFCC, ICPC, DSS, Attorney General and others. We needed a policy to handle whistle-blowers whilst waiting for the legislation.
I think people have gotten fixated on the five per cent but that is not really the main objective. We had cases where members of staff of a bank willingly volunteered information and we recovered the funds but they were later discovered to have leaked the information and lost their jobs. We had no means of compensating them for their loss. So we researched best practice and worked with the Nigerian Stock Exchange to develop the portal.
So far, we have had many referrals and not everyone is looking for a reward. Most just want to do the right thing. For example, an officer in a bank was told to rename some bank accounts containing government funds, so that the money would not go to the TSA. She volunteered the information and we recovered N1.3bn. As a result of this, the Accountant General has written to all the banks to inform them that we will be auditing the transfer of accounts and giving them a window to come forward, if in doubt as to whether funds belong to the Federal Government.
Which development paradigm do you think would best work for Nigeria and Africa?
I think every country has to work out its own model because the old global consensus is over. Every nation is looking out for itself. The election of Donald Trump and Brexit are clear examples of that. So the question must be what works for Nigeria, given its demography, endowments and needs.
Clearly, the old oil-driven model where we pump out crude oil and import most of our needs has failed. Our development has to be inclusive and it has to produce jobs and the best way to do so is to become more productive in a number of key sectors, both for import substitution and to widen our sources of foreign exchange by exporting. To do this, we must fix our infrastructure. The lack of it has held back our growth.
How would you describe yourself: a politician, a technocrat or a ‘technopol’?
I am not a politician but I think that being in public service forces you to become one.
Shortly before your appointment as minister, you had series of negative press, how did you cope?
That was tough, very tough because I am still not sure where it was coming from but I never lobbied or even asked to be where I am. I was out jogging in Abeokuta early in the morning when someone showed me my name in a newspaper as a ministerial nominee. So I believe it was and is the will of God and that provided an inner strength that is beyond me.
What were your impressions about politics and politicians before you got into government service?
That is an interesting question. As you know, I served in Ogun State but before I met Governor Ibikunle Amosun, my mentor had mentioned to me the fact that his friend had just become governor-elect and was trying to build a team. This was in a period when Ogun State had been associated with naked oaths and all sorts of negative information. I reacted very vehemently because I had a very bad impression of the political space, especially for women.
Who are your role models in politics, governance and development?
I am a great admirer of Barrack Obama, for his pioneering role and for challenging boundaries. Nelson Mandela is a wonderful example of a true statesman. Closer to home, Baba Obasanjo is still so passionate about Nigeria and that inspires.
Governor Amosun taught me passion for service. For four years, he drilled a team of us into working 12 to 14 hour days with his relentless vision for the state. He would even make you feel guilty asking for a single day off. Even the shortest family break would be met with: “What do you want to go and do there? Those countries have worked hard. They have power, world class airports, good roads and we are just trying to build ours. Don’t you feel ashamed going there when you should be here serving Ogun State? If they take a holiday, they deserve it, but what have we done here in Nigeria?” Of course, we would persevere and eventually travel for a few days but it stuck in my mind that truly, other nations have sacrificed and built their countries, so we need to build ours. It’s a very contagious concept.
With the benefit of hindsight is there any experience that prepared for your participation in politics?
No, I don’t think anything can really prepare one for public life in Nigeria, it’s a culture shock.
Where exactly are you from in Ogun State and how involved are you in that community?
I am from Ogun Waterside, a very rural but incredibly beautiful part of Ogun State with Atlantic coastline and authentic, unpretentious people. My parents grew up in villages in Ogun Waterside and spent a few years in Lagos before travelling to London in the early sixties. But we still maintain strong links there, my brother, a London lawyer, maintains a house there. I keep in touch with family there. I have cousins who have little or no formal education, so staying in touch with them lets me feel the pulse of real working-class Nigerians. It also lets me understand that for a large proportion of Nigerians, life has not really changed in 40 years. Last time I went home, I asked to go to the farm, not much had changed from the way my father used to describe his childhood. That’s a challenge but it is also a huge opportunity to modernise farming methods and increase productivity.
Can you share some memorable highlights of your childhood and teenage years?
I grew up in Highbury, North London. There are four of us and I am the third and the only one in Nigeria. In fact, my family home is in London. Our parents were strict despite London’s seeming liberalism. It was illegal to beat children but my parents disregarded such laws, they were hard- working and very proud Nigerians. They made us understand that we were Nigerians not British. So for example, even though at the age of 16, British people could ‘sign on’ for benefits, we were not allowed to. My parents felt it was a curse to collect what they called ‘free money’ when we were fit and healthy. So we would go and get holiday jobs when others were waiting for their weekly dole money. Those principles were sound principles that taught us hard work and self-reliance.
My father would always remind us that ‘Britain is not our country.’ They always planned to return to Nigeria but somehow never did. My dad is late now.
Which are your earliest memories of Nigeria, especially while growing up in the UK?
I came to Nigeria for the first time at 19. I understood a bit of Yoruba because we attended a Nigerian church in London. My first impressions were really positive. Having grown up black in a predominantly white society, the idea that skin colour was irrelevant was very refreshing. I felt and still feel a sense of belonging here in Nigeria.
Did you at any point think that you would serve at the highest level of governance in Nigeria?
Who are your earliest influencers and shapers, especially in your younger years?
Parents are number one but being London based, we had many relatives stay with us on holidays or whilst studying. Most of dad’s relatives were university lecturers. Growing up, my favourite uncle was Tunde Kuboye (Jazz 38). He was so different and informal. His father, Late Pa Kuboye was stern and traditional, just like my dad. But Uncle Tunde and his now late wife, Fran, were a breath of fresh air. Late Aunty Fran was a Ransome-Kuti and she had also grown up in England but they were professionals. Uncle Tunde has a first class honours in Engineering and aunty Fran was a dentist and also a nonconformist. They would always turn up in jeans and just be so relaxed. Their informality was something I admired. Up till now, my mum (who is close to 80) still tries to convince Uncle Tunde (who is about 65) to stop wearing what she describes as ‘Jean osi.’
How did you get into finance (career) and under whose influence?
I have had many influencers. I studied Economics but wanted to be an accountant. An English lady who was a finance director in a major insurance company advised me to get qualified with a medium- sized firm so that I would get broad experience. She was of the view that finance was practical, not theoretical and that an accountant who had never prepared a set of books was as good as useless. She said those who can understand small things can scale up but it does not often work in reverse.
What kind of support do you receive from your spouse as a minister and how well have your kids coped?
Amazing support, my husband is very private but confident enough in himself to encourage me to be what I can be. Without him, it would be very hard because there are really tough days. My children just take life in their stride, as children do. As far as they are concerned, it is a job and that is the way I like to see it too. So there have been no lifestyle changes, we are just a regular family. People who know me well know that life has not changed for us and we want to keep it that way especially for the children.
What was the reaction of your parents and siblings to your appointments?
Very proud. My 78-year-old mum came from London for the swearing-in ceremony; she was the one who complained that the programme for the ceremony was just a sheet of white paper. I laughed because it was a sign of the war on waste that was to come. She watches Channels and other Nigerian TV stations from the UK and keeps in touch with what is happening.
Nigerian politicians claim to come under heavy pressure from family, friends and constituents asking for dole-outs and favour, is that your experience? How do you handle these requests?
I get requests but I have very little to dole out and by my background, favours don’t work for me. I think that those who know me understand that now so they leave me alone. If someone has gone through all the required processes, then knowing me should not be relevant. We need to build a system where you don’t need to know anyone.
People often say women are their own worst enemies in corporate organisations and in politics. What’s your perspective?
I disagree. I think that there are too few senior women for anyone to form that view. I have a great team of mentors who have helped me along the way, Mrs. Toyin Olakunri is a professional godmother who has mentored and encouraged me and there are a host of others that just encourage and support each other.
Which ethical or moral value drives you the most?
I try to say it as it is, life is so much easier when we are candid.
What is your philosophy of life?
I am passionate about anything I do. I am 100 per cent or nothing at all so I drive my team mad with very high expectations but I honestly believe time is against us. . I don’t do lukewarm and I hate people who lack energy. Doing something grudgingly is worse than not doing it at all.
I come across as very serious but those who know me well know how much I love to laugh. The Bible says laughter is good medicine and it is true.
Do you feel a need to leave a legacy behind as a public servant and what would that legacy be?
I think being here is in itself a legacy but I want to improve our public finances because I can see that if we get it right, future generations will have a Nigeria that they can be proud of. I have always been a youth leader in church and when I came to Nigeria, lots of young people were seeking for prayer to get visas to go out. As someone who was born, bred and buttered (excuse the pun) abroad, I tell them that rather than praying for you to get out, I will pray for Nigeria to improve so that people will come in. I can see that happening.
How would you want Nigerians to remember you long after office?
I think we place too much emphasis on position in Nigeria. People should serve and leave office and not seek glory. So, I would like to be forgotten, left alone to get on with life after office and replaced by younger, more dynamic professionals who will serve with passion.
What three words best describe you and your outlook towards life?
Candid, passionate, optimistic.