Posted by REMI OYO on
IF President Olusegun Obasanjo harboured any feelings of deep personal fulfillment as he addressed the nation on June 30, 2005 over the debt relief offered Nigeria by the Paris Club, he would have been thoroughly justified.
IF President Olusegun Obasanjo harboured any feelings of deep personal fulfillment as he addressed the nation on June 30, 2005 over the debt relief offered Nigeria by the Paris Club, he would have been thoroughly justified. For the President, the momentous offer to Nigeria by the Paris Club at the conclusion of its meeting on June 29 was a fitting and happy conclusion to the great personal effort he had put, over the past six years into achieving significant debt relief for the country.
Convinced that debt relief must be a key element of his plans to revitalize the Nigerian economy and alleviate the debilitating poverty in which millions of Nigerians live, President Obasanjo had at the inception of his administration in 1999 launched into a grueling campaign to convince leaders of the worldís major creditor nations that it was in the interest of global peace, security and stability to grant debt relief or cancellation to Nigeria and other developing nations. Disregarding a rising crescendo of misplaced criticism of his "junketing", President Obasanjo journeyed to all parts of the world to make direct personal appeals to the political leaders of the wealthy creditor-nations of the world for debt relief to Nigeria and other African countries.
Before the historic offer of debt relief to Nigeria, the President had directly stated the case for debt relief for Nigeria and Africa many times over to two serving Presidents of the United States, President Vladmir Putin of the Russian Federation, Prime minister Tony Blair of Britain, Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, President Jaques Chirac of France, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, Prime minister Jean Chretien of Canada and Prime minister John Howard of Australia. Of the 19 permanent members of the Paris Club Ė Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, the Russian Federation, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States of America - only Austria and Spain had not been visited by the President before its recent offer of debt relief to Nigeria.
I have in the more recent months of the Presidentís second term been particularly privileged to accompany him on his odyssey to foreign capitals in search of debt relief which will translate into much more resources for the urgent tasks of national development at home. All others who have shared this privilege since President Obasanjo assumed office in 1999 can attest to the wonderful zeal, patience, doggedness and commitment with which he pursued the goal of debt relief. Such was his devotion to attaining this objective that he often thought nothing of leaving his desk at the Presidential Villa in Abuja at the close of work on a particular day, foregoing rest and sleep, and flying halfway around the world, in the most inclement of weathers, to keep an appointment with a world leader who could positively influence Nigeriaís demand for debt relief.
Nigeria and other countries in Africa certainly owe President Obasanjo a debt of gratitude for the debt relief they have received. It could never have been achieved without his dogged determination and persistent advocacy at all bilateral, multilateral and global fora over the past six years, even though he has generously deflected some of the credit to members of his economic team led by Finance minister, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Most Nigerians have happily been expressing their appreciation of the Presidentís efforts in this regard and the Presidential Villa in Abuja has been inundated with congratulatory letters, as well as visits and telephone calls from political leaders, traditional rulers, captains of industry and ordinary Nigerians thanking President Obasanjo for achieving a debt relief of close to $20 Billion for the country. The editorial boards and columnists in several publications across the country have also hailed the Presidentís feat, with some suggesting that it is perhaps, his "finest hour" in public office.
Regrettably, however, some perpetual cynics and kill-joys in our midst have, in keeping with their abiding tendency to always see a glass as half empty, rather than half full, been trying to put a damper on Nigeriansí joy over the debt relief by questioning the genuineness of the offer by Paris Club and the "conditionalities" attached to it. It is quite shocking that in spite of clear and unambiguous statements by the President, the Finance Minister, the Paris Club itself and no less a person than Mr. Gordon Brown, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer on the debt relief offered to Nigeria, some magazines and newspapers in the country have been offering reports and articles to their readers with baseless titles such as: "Debt deal: The big lie" and "is this what they call debt relief."
I will be the last person to question the right of journalists and columnists to hold an opinion, but I can certainly question their right to distort verifiable facts to suit their opinions, and it is an indisputable fact that the Paris Club has offered Nigeria 60 per cent debt relief. Much of the skeptism and doubts being expressed in the mass media is supposedly based on the claim that the statement by the Paris Club on its offer to Nigeria only speaks of a readiness to enter into negotiations with the country on a comprehensive debt treatment. This over-reliance on the statement by the Paris Club as the only source of correct information on the debt relief offered to Nigeria flies in the face of the obvious fact that other sources exist and that President Obasanjo and his economic team have direct channels of communication with the club.
President Obasanjo was certainly not relying on the statement posted on the website of the Paris Club when he addressed the nation on June 30, neither was the Minister of Finance when she briefed the press earlier that day on the specifics of the offer by the Paris Club. Some other commentators have suggested, rather uncharitably, that President Obasanjo and Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala have contrived to overstate the significance of the offer of debt relief by the Paris Club. This suggestion is definitely untrue.
If anything, the President and his very able Finance Minister have been rather guarded and cautious in their interpretation of the Paris Club offer to the Nigerian public. Not so, the United Kingdomís Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Gordon Brown, who said in a statement to the House of Commons that the debt relief combined with the debt buy-back would mean "there is 100 per cent debt relief for Nigeria possible over the next six months". It should be noted here that Britain is a leading member of the Paris Club and that as the British Chief Finance Minister, Mr. Brown is his countryís principal representative at the Club and should know what he is talking about on this matter.
Others like my "aburo", Simon Kolawole of Thisday and Chief Gani Fawehinmi question the wisdom of spending $12 Billion to get out of a debt trap of over $30 Billion, which could very well get larger in years to come from penalties and interests on the original debt. I am sure that Simon will readily concede that he is very far from being an expert on the intricacies of international finance. He and others who have been suggesting various untenable alternative responses to the offer by the Paris Club must also concede that the President is served by an acclaimed expert on this subject in the person of his Finance Minister, who was until her current appointment, Vice President of the World Bank.
Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala has patiently explained that it is illogical and wrong to suggest that Nigeria should reschedule its remaining debt instead of paying up now and becoming debt-free. Whatís more, the country stands to save a whopping $8 Billion by settling its debts on the terms now offered by the Paris Club.
President Obasanjo has through the greatest personal effort and his deep commitment to serving this nation achieved this landmark offer of debt relief to the country. Those who question the significance and quality of this historic achievement are being most unfair to him on this score. Let us all give the President his due. He has done exceedingly well for our country and all of Africa on this matter of debt relief and the greatest tribute Nigerians can pay him in this regard is ensure that he receives our total and complete support to finalize the deal with the Paris Club which will take the burden of foreign debt off our collective shoulders for all time.
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