Okonjo-Iweala: Africa’s Most Visible Technocrat

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Once again, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, two-time Minister of Finance in Nigeria and former Managing Director of the World Bank has been nominated for a top international job at the World Trade Organisation. At 65, the Nigerian-born economist and international development expert, who sits on the board of a couple of international corporate organisations which include among others, Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), and the African Risk Capacity (ARC), continues to be relevant to solving problems across the globe. Most recently, the government of South Africa invited her to join its economic team to help place the country’s troubled economy on the path of growth. Already, President Muhammadu Buhari is rallying support for her to represent the continent of Africa and Nigeria at the top echelon of world trade. Bamidele Famoofo reports

The nomination of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, one of the world’s finest development economists to vie for the position of the Director- General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in an election that will hold in Geneva, next year, did not come as a surprise to Nigerians, as her antecedent speaks for her.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who already has confirmed the nomination in an official announcement through the Nigerian Embassy and Permanent Mission to the African Union (AU) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has started rallying support for her eventual emergency as DG of WTO come next year, by engaging member countries’ embassies and permanent missions.

If the will of the president comes through, the two-time former Minister of Finance in Nigeria would serve as the country’s candidate for the term 2021 – 2025 at the elections scheduled to hold in Geneva, Switzerland in 2021.

A renowned global finance expert, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, is an economist and international development professional with over 30-year experience, having worked in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America.

She is currently the Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; a member of the Boards of Standard Chartered PLC and Twitter Inc, and was recently appointed as African Union (AU) Special Envoy to mobilise International Financial Support in the fight against COVID-19, as well as Special Envoy for the World Health Organization’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.

Okonjo-Iweala had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the position of managing director. As finance minister, the former finance minister steered Nigeria through a varying degree of reforms, particularly on macroeconomic, trade, financial and real sector issues.

Background

Okonjo-Iweala was born in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, Nigeria where her father, the late Prof. Chukwuka Okonjo was the Eze (King) from the Obahai Royal Family of Ogwashi-Ukwu.

Okonjo-Iweala was educated at Queen’s School, Enugu, St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan, and the International School Ibadan. She arrived in the US in 1973 as a teenager to study at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude with an AB in Economics in 1976. In 1981, she earned her Ph.D in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a thesis titled Credit policy, rural financial markets, and Nigeria’s agricultural development. She received an International Fellowship from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that supported her doctoral studies.

She is married to Dr. Ikemba Iweala, a neurosurgeon. They have four children – one daughter, Onyinye Iweala (AB, MD, PhD, Harvard) and three sons, Uzodinma Iweala (AB, Harvard, MD, Columbia), Okechukwu Iweala (AB, Harvard) and Uchechi Iweala (AB, MD, MBA, Harvard).

Career History

Okonjo-Iweala had a 25-year career at the World Bank in Washington DC as a development economist, rising to the number two position of managing director. As managing director, she had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. Okonjo-Iweala spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during the 2008 – 2009, food crises, and later during the financial crisis. In 2010, she was Chair of the IDA replenishment, the World Bank’s successful drive to raise $49.3 billion in grants and low interest credit for the poorest countries in the world. During her time at the World Bank, she was also a member of the Commission on Effective Development Cooperation with Africa, which was set up by the Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, and held meetings between April and October 2008. Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister and also as Minister of Foreign Affairs. She was the first female to hold both positions.

Achievements

During her first term as Minister of Finance under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Administration, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the cancellation of $18 billion out of Nigeria’s debt of $30billion. In 2003, she led efforts to improve Nigeria’s macroeconomic management including the implementation of an oil-price based fiscal rule where revenues accruing above a reference benchmark oil price were saved in a special account, “The Excess Crude Account” which helped to reduce macroeconomic volatility.

She also introduced the practice of publishing each state’s monthly financial allocation from the federal government in the newspapers. This action went a long way in increasing transparency in governance. With the support of the World Bank and the IMF to the Federal Government of Nigeria, she helped build an electronic financial management platform—the Government Integrated Financial Management and Information System (GIFMIS), including the Treasury Single Account (TSA) and the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), helping to curtail corruption in the process. As at 31 December 2014, the IPPIS platform had eliminated 62,893 ghost workers from the system and saved the Nigerian government about $1.25 billion in the process.

Okonjo-Iweala was also instrumental in helping Nigeria obtain its first-ever sovereign credit rating (of BB minus) from Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s in 2006.

Following her first term as Minister of Finance, she returned to the World Bank as a managing director in December 2007.

In 2011, Okonjo-Iweala was re-appointed as Minister of Finance in Nigeria with the expanded portfolio of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy by President Goodluck Jonathan. Her legacy includes strengthening Nigeria’s public financial systems and stimulating the housing sector with the establishment of the Nigerian Mortgage Refinance Corporation (NMRC). She also empowered Nigeria’s women and youth with the Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria Programme (GWIN); a gender responsive budgeting system, and the highly acclaimed Youth Enterprise with Innovation programme (YouWIN); to support entrepreneurs that created thousands of jobs.

This programme has been evaluated by the World Bank as one of the most effective programmes of its kind globally. Under her leadership, the National Bureau of Statistics carried out a re-basing exercise of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP); the first in 24 years, which saw Nigeria, emerge as the largest economy in Africa. She took a lot of heat for the fuel subsidy removal policy by the Nigerian government, an action that led to protests in January 2012. In May 2016, the new Nigerian administration eventually removed the fuel subsidy after it became apparent that it was unsustainable and inefficient.

Later career

Okonjo-Iweala is co-Chair of the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate, with Nicholas Stern and Paul Polman. Previously, she served as the co-Chair of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation.

In the past, Okonjo-Iweala was also a member of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (2015-2016), chaired by Gordon Brown; the Commission on the New Climate Economy (also co-Chaired by Paul Polman and Lord Nicholas Stern); the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders Foundation; the United Nations’ Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (2012-2013); and the renowned Growth Commission (2006-2009), led by Nobel Prize winner Professor Michael Spence.

Okonjo-Iweala is the founder of Nigeria’s first indigenous opinion-research organisation, NOI-Polls. She also founded the Center for the Study of Economies of Africa (C-SEA), a development research think tank based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital and is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development and the Brookings Institution.

In 2012, Okonjo-Iweala was a candidate for President of the World Bank, running against Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim; if elected; she would have been the organisation’s first female president.

Since 2019, Okonjo-Iweala has been part of UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education, chaired by Sahle-Work Zewde. In 2020, the International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, appointed her to an external advisory group to provide input on policy challenges. Also in 2020, she was appointed by the African Union (AU) as special envoy to solicit international support to help the continent deal with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to South Africa’s economic challenges, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed Okonjo-Iweala as a member of the country’s economic advisory council.