At 70, What It Means To Be Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Okonjo-Iweala

The first time I spoke to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, she was perhaps the most powerful minister in Nigeria and I was a 17 year old journalist. I had just interviewed her son, Uzodinma – who had written an award winning novel – for my column Sons & Daughters in Thisday newspapers. She had been so impressed she told a mentor of mine who worked with her: “This is the best interview in a Nigerian newspaper that I have read.” 

If he hadn’t actually given her the phone to speak to me, I would never have believed it. It was one of those eternal gifts of validation a teenager never forgets. 

The other thing that occurred to me? This was a woman so enamoured of excellence that encountering a piece of journalism she considered excellent compelled her to reach out to a young man she had never met before, and didn’t need to meet. 

What’s interesting? She is my aunty by blood. I knew that already but she didn’t. Family members had told me I should find a way to reach out to her as she had now returned from the World Bank to work for the Nigerian government, but there was no way to do so. Yet here I was now, my work making a way for me; this pioneer reaching by herself. 

Because this powerful woman felt compelled to praise a teenager she didn’t know, without knowing he was family. 

When she returned to Nigeria in 2012, she asked her team to ‘find that young man’ and appointed me into a committee that launched her wildly successful YouWIN! Project, that incubated several success Nigerian businesses before incubators and accelerators and startups became a local buzzword. Again, excellence compelled her. 

This is not surprising if you know her trajectory. Okonjo-Iweala has found her way to the very top shelf of the world’s bureaucracy – a Black African woman in simple ‘ankara’ and an awkward signature headgear finding her way steadily in the corridors of global power, building a 25-year career at the World Bank, rising to the number two position and launching into global consciousness from thence.

This is a woman who has found her way in the world one step after another, earning every success, accumulating every victory, quiet but ferocious; every scholarship, every doctorate, every board appointment, every crashed ceiling. 

I worked with her at the coordinating minister of the economy, worked with her while she ran for the office of the World Bank President, benefited from her generosity as she served on the board of our organization The Future Project and recommended our project The Future Awards Africa to be hosted by the Nigerian President, and the most powerful images I have are of her working late into the night, thoroughly exhausted, but still asking you for the next document; discussing the intricate details of the next intervention. She was relentless.  

And the power of her work and success is that you don’t see her coming. Soft spoken, diminutive, even shy, it is easy to assume that this one can be a pushover, and it is an advantage she has parlayed into lethal victory as she fought corrupt leaders in Nigeria, survived a treacherous political climate, and returned to a shiny spot in the global elite. 

“She is naïve in the most innocent of ways,” someone who knows her once told me. “Almost surprised by human deception, But at the same time she has one of the most keenly strategic minds you can ever think of. It is a trait you see in the most transformational leaders.”

Her work in Nigeria has shown that you can make political change happen without getting muddied in the political waters. That you can be technocrat in one of the globe’s most corrupt terrains and emerge with your reputation intact. That you can fight entrenched interests on every side, some of whom fight dirty in return, even kidnapping her mother and attacking her family, but rise above it all still well loved by every power bloc. 

That you can make real change happen in this world without bluster and bullying; simply by being the most brilliant professional that there is. That you can become the first female and African director general of the World Trade Organization, heralded by all as the obvious choice, simply by the power of your hard-won CV. 

And, above all, that it is entirely possible in this world to shine and soar simply by outworking everyone, outperforming every player – and doing it all with simplicity, without drama, buoyed only by the unending power of quiet courage. 

70 years old today, and she is obviously just getting started. 

*Jideonwo is host and director of the viral talk show #WithChude, which airs across the continent and online. In 2024, he was appointed Creative-in-Residence at the London School of Economics

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