GRAFT: I was locked out of Aso Villa because I refused to play ball
~ Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Former Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala recently narrated how she was embarrassed, and kicked out of the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
She also narrated that she was further embarrassed when she fixed a meeting between then President Goodluck Jonathan, and the head of the International Moneyary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde at the Villa.
The former finance minister who made this known during an event preceding the signing of the book, ‘Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines’ in Washington DC, lamented that all these happened because of her stance against a policy that was being used to siphon government funds.
She said, ”About six weeks into the implementation in early December 2011, I received a message that a top ranking presidential aide wanted me to stop by his office any time I was in the Villa. The Villa is the equivalent of the White House.
This official was one of the important aides in the Villa. So, I went to his office the next day.
“The presidential aide told me that he wanted to convey a message to me that there were people not happy with the port reforms especially the abolishment of the Cargo Tracking Note.
And he asked me, indeed advised me to reinstate it. I was dismayed because the fact that the matter has been brought to his attention meant that whoever the unhappy people were, they were influential. I explained the genesis of the port reforms, the situation of the presidential task force and the approvals for action given by the president.
By implementing the reforms measures we were just carrying out the presidential approvals. He said he understood but that I should nevertheless find a way to reinstate the Cargo Tracking Note.
“I left his office very troubled. Being on the wrong side of people who had this kind of top level influence made me uneasy. I knew there could be consequences but I also knew that there was no going back on these important reforms.
Clearly the $6 million from the Nigerian Ports Authority from the Cargo Tracking Note not being remitted to the treasury must be going into some influential pockets.
https://www.ted.com/talks/ngozi_okonjo_iweala_want_to_help_africa_do_business_here?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala- TED 2007 talk
The morning after meeting with the presidential aide, the consequences began to become clear. I was privileged that part of my daily routine was to join the president and his family and his few close friends in Christian fellowship and morning prayers in the residential complex of the Villa.
It was a way to gain strength for each difficult day. The prayer normally began at 6am so by 5:45am every day, I arrived at the Villa gate I was routinely waved in.
That morning the gates remained firmly shot as I drove up and I was told I could not go in. Taken back I asked why, all I could get as a response was that the gate keepers had received instructions not to let me in for morning prayers. I began to argue but realizing that it was fruitless, I returned home. At that point I felt a mistake had occurred and thought no more about it.
But for the next three days I was blocked from entering for the early morning prayers at the Villa.
By the third day, the security officers at the gate all of whom knew me well told me, ‘Honourable Minister Ma, I think you need to talk to the presidential aide, ‘they gave me the name of the aide and it was the same person who had asked me to restore the Cargo Tracking Note.
Then I understood.
When I called one of my prayer fellowship friends on phone, Mr. John Kenny Opara and told him about the situation, he said he would discuss this with the villa pastor and they will intercede on my behalf.
After going to the gate and not allowed in for the fourth time, I pushed the situation to the back of my mind and turned to the preparations for the upcoming visit to Nigeria of the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Madame Christian Lagarde, on December 18-20, 2011.
My biggest preoccupation was to ensure that in the raging national debate about the phase out of oil subsidies, Madame Lagarde’s visit was not miscast by the media or anti-government forces as the IMF telling the government what to do on energy subsidies. Madame Lagarde, was equally concerned that her objectives be clearly understood as reviewing our macroeconomic and growth reform and offering encouragement and support.
The visit proceeded smoothly as Madame Lagarde met with members of the Economic Management Team, the Central Bank and other important bank officials. She was scheduled to meet with the president on the final day of her visit December 20.
There are usually many protocols and conventions to observe on high level visits especially when the visitor is accorded head of state’s status as Christine Lagarde was. One of these is for such dignitaries to enter the Villa for a meeting with the president through a gate designated for Heads of State only.
Because Madame Lagarde was to use this gate, I had asked my staff to double check and ensure all was in order and I was reassured that this was the case.
But when the motorcade reached this gate it was denied entry. Embarrassed, I tried to find out from the security guards what was going on; they said they had no instructions for her to use that gate. And we should proceed to the entrance reserved for state governors, certain designated ministers I was one of them and other dignitaries. We were already running late.
So I apologised to Madame Lagarde and told her there must be a mix up and asked the drivers to proceed to the other gate. When we got there we were again denied entry. By this time it was clear to me that there was no misunderstanding but that this was deliberate.
We were told to go back to the regular entrance used by everybody, park our car there and we will have to walk, five minutes down the villa corridors which were long and leading to the president’s meeting room.
Such treatment of such dignitary at the level of head of state was unheard of.
Christine, clever as she is had figured out something was wrong but she didn’t know what. She handled it all with gaits and elegance telling me she didn’t really care which gate she went through or how far she had to walk as long as we met with the president.
By this time we were about 10 minutes late. We eventually made it to the meeting. When the president enquired if everything was alright, she replied wittily, Mr. President there was a bit of a mix up about gates and we had to walk here. But it gave me the chance to see your beautiful Villa and its lovely gardens.
The President looked puzzled but smiled and started the meeting. I never shared with him or with Christine Lagarde what I thought had happened that day….