There is in every one of us a primeval distaste for borrowing linked to the belief that indebtedness is akin to surrendering your independence to the creditor. From this premise, indebtedness is an assault on self-pride.
However, Abraham Nwankwo earns a living facilitating borrowing. And since 2007, he has enjoyed the blessing of the First and Second Citizens doing a job that amounts to justifying the very occupation that earned Shylock his odious reputation in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. And the man does it with both panache and pride – and not without due regards to the sensibilities of watchdogs on borrowing who are insisting on democratisation of the processes in which governments decide to go to financial institutions to take loans.
The Debt Management Office (DMO) is one of the institutions set up to steer Nigeria off the path of the debt trap in which the majority of developing countries were caught from the 1970s to the 1990s, until the wind of debt forgiveness blew through the southern hemisphere at the turn of the 21st century.
I was a member of a high-powered BusinessDay team that interviewed University of Nigeria, Nsukka-trained Abraham Nwankwo, its director general, last week, details of which have been published in this newspaper.
Listening to the man, you’d think taking loans from financial institutions is a perfectly normal thing to do. It was then put to him that he sounded too rosy about the trend of governments going to take loans from financial institutions. Was he sure that civil society, for instance, would actually agree with him that there’s no cause for alarm? Was he not aware that people have this notion that most state governments take loans for frivolous reasons? Doesn’t the trend portend danger?
Then he makes a telling distinction: “The DMO is not office of due process. But what we are doing as part of establishing debt management departments in every state is that we are helping them as well to have their fiscal responsibility laws. We are helping them to have their public procurement laws, which is due process. So these are things we can do from our own side. As I said, we are building the institutions. We are not picking holes looking for what to criticise. We are building institutions that do not give room for abuse, for errors, for manipulation. We are building the institutions and that is our focus. We are not complaining about the problem. We are helping solve the problem.”
But, indeed, DMO is the de facto due process office for government-initiated borrowings in Nigeria. Given the passion with which he responded to questions, we wanted to know the extent to which he felt entitled to take credit for the strides that DMO was making. “Well, it’s the Nigerian people that should take the credit. We are working for the Nigerian people who have confidence in my team and myself, and have asked us to do this job for them. They are the people who should take credit.” He actually means the Nigerian government! “They could have made a different choice but, somehow, they chose me and my team and gave us this responsibility.”
Pressed further to link DMO’s achievements to his style of management, he insisted: “No, it has to do with the Nigerian spirit which is that of performance. It is a spirit of go and get your job done; the reward will come…. But just do your job and make sure you try to prove that nobody can do it better than you. And that is the spirit in DMO. The president will perform outstandingly when the institutions deliver outstandingly. The president has mandated us to do our various jobs, including all the MDAs and even the private sector. So we think that if we cannot do it here, then it cannot be done anywhere else. At DMO, we think that the best way to show that the country can do it is by us doing it as well.
“So our ambition is to make sure that, in the next five years, it will be incontrovertible in the world that Nigeria’s Debt Management Office is among the best in the world. And we believe that is the kind of spirit every institution should have, aiming to be the best in the world. And, certainly, Nigeria will be the best in the world.”
When he was awarded a PhD in Economics in 1985, it was the first time that UNN was giving out a PhD in Economics in its 25 years. With a youthful photograph of his hung between those of President Jonathan and Vice President Sambo, both of whom he has, respectively, functionally interfaced with, and continue to relate to, it was not difficult to understand the man’s confidence and self-assuredness.
After all, the ultimate justification for his position is that they are never, at any moment, going to be able to provide funding for every project to improve peoples’ lives.