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César Augusto Mba Abogo: ‘Reform is hardest part of government’

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César Augusto Mba Abogo: ‘Reform is hardest part of government’

Until October, César Augusto Mba Abogo was the Minister for Finance, Economy and Planning in Equatorial Guinea. In his first international interview since leaving office, he talks about managing an economy during a recession, his negotiations with the IMF and pushing through reforms.

César Augusto Mba Abogo spent a little over a year as Minister for Finance, Economy and Planning, when he had to manage an economic downturn caused by the rapid fall in the price of oil.

Prior to his Ministerial position he was at the heart of the team monitoring the implementation of the country’s 2008-2020 National Economic Development Plan.

As a result, in the past year he was one of the country’s chief cheerleaders, championing Equatorial Guinea’s cause to the international community, including during difficult negotiations with the IMF.

He says that as he reflects on his last five years in government, both positions involved two critical roles. One, convincing stakeholders within and outside government to accept the inevitability and necessity of change; and two, placing a robust reform agenda at the heart of the country’s economic and development strategy.

Mba Abogo describes reform as the hardest part of government, and much harder than manoeuvring in a crisis. “Reform is about leadership and getting the buy-in of colleagues, the business and investment community, influential constituencies that feel threatened by change, and the general public. You certainly need a generous amount of conviction and you need to do a whole lot of persuading,” he says.

A country like Equatorial Guinea, he argues, has too often been demonised by the international media and this makes reform a lot harder to sell. Why, he infers, will a country or people be willing to make the sacrifices necessary for change, when they know the international community will keep ostracising and criticising, regardless of the reforms implemented. 

Isn’t the criticism levelled against his country justified? He doesn’t blame the international community and some of the criticism is justified but he insists much of the current narrative is outdated, stereotypical and not reflective of reality.

He stresses this is not particular to Equatorial Guinea but applies to the whole of the continent. “For the larger countries, such as Egypt, South Africa or Nigeria, investors are more discerning and the narrative will be more nuanced. But for the smaller ones, the job [of convincing otherwise] is harder.”

He is adamant that the constant drumbeat of negative international media reporting had an impact on Equatorial Guinea during their negotiations with the IMF. When they initiated discussions with the IMF in 2016, Human Rights Watch issued a report criticising the government’s infrastructure spending.

Other NGOs called for the IMF to reject the support plan they had put together. As a result, in 2016 the country underwent the Staff Monitored Programme of the IMF without any financial support.

Besides from the Development Bank of the Central African States (DBEAC), Equatorial Guinea has not received any financial support related to Covid-19 to date. This time round, he insisted that support shouldn’t have any conditionalities. “We would have lost the confidence of the people and certainly of some of my colleagues towards the international community,” he explains.

He agrees that addressing issues of corruption, transparency and governance are paramount, but argues that they shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of discussions.

“When we develop a plan for the country, it’s not just about the eradication of corruption but also ensuring that we have thought through a plan that will take into consideration the environment, the youth, women, and preparedness for a world centred around technology,” he says.

“Those that are undergoing reform [the people] need to understand what they have to gain, and at the same time, international partners need to have a more objective perspective of the country and make more realistic demands.

“Negotiations and consultations between parties also requires them [the international institutions] to fully understand the local context, and getting both parties to understand each other better.”

Focus on the moon, not the finger

Sorting out public finances, including better macro-economic management and greater transparency, were major projects for his Ministry. The target has been to fund government spending from non-oil related revenue. That means widening the revenue base – at under 7% of GDP, fiscal receipts are the second-lowest in Africa after Nigeria – and also, reducing government spending.

He calls for economic transformation through bold and ambitious reforms and targets. He quotes a line from a Bruce Lee film, where the actor puts his finger out, points to the sky and asks, “What do you see? Do you see my finger or do you see the moon?”

Too often we look at the finger rather than the moon, Mba Abogo points out. And it’s the moon we need to be aiming for, not the end of the finger. He underlines the analogy by quoting US President John Kennedy: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

He says what makes Equatorial Guinea an attractive investment proposition is that it is stable, politically but also as a society and as a people. It can be a driver of development and growth for the region.

Mba Abogo anticipates that Equatorial Guinea can become a regional hub. He believes agriculture is a low-hanging fruit. He insists that given his country’s infrastructure, it can play a critical role as a regional logistics platform for the region as well as play an important role in oil and gas, where it has developed expertise and a competitive advantage, in areas such as transhipment and oil and gas servicing.

Staunch pan-Africanist

When you speak to Mba Abogo, he comes across as a staunch pan-Africanist. Based on his experience with his peers, is there a common African agenda? The realities of each country are different, he explains, hence the differences. But ideologically, there is complete alignment.

He talks excitedly and passionately about the need for greater youth participation in government. He was a young finance minister, by African and international standards, and advocates strongly for the continent’s talented youth to play a greater role in their countries’ politics. Every aspect of government, including reform, needs to have a youth component. He cites his greatest achievement as putting together a young team of leaders within his Ministry. This has led to greater dynamism which he believes has enhanced his Ministry’s effectiveness. “But we need to create that space for them to lead,” he says.

What did he enjoy working on most? One of the highlights, he explains, was working with the private sector and alongside Singapore Corporation Enterprise to comprehensively improve the country’s investment climate and strengthen competitiveness, based on the World Economic Forum competitiveness index, he adds. “It’s about benchmarking yourself against the best.”

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