by Hauwa Gambo
Japan has announced its candidate for the World Bank presidency and it’s Jim Yong Kim, the United States nominee. Kim is Korean-American. This is clearly good news for the US, which is the bank’s largest shareholder, as it has seemed a lonely voice in recent days – with The Financial Times, The Economist and the New York Times throwing their support to Nigeria’s coordinating minister of the economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Jun Azumi, who is Japan’s finance minister, made the country’s support known when he met with Kim during his tour of Asia to find support for his candidacy.
He is a highly competent individual who spearheaded efforts and contributed to AIDS issues,” Azumi told reporters yesterday in Tokyo after meeting Kim. “We judge he’s an appropriate candidate for the World Bank and support his bid.”
Meanwhile, yesterday, the UK Guardian published a glowing tribute to Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, in a profile that spotlighted her competence and global popularity.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian iron lady. When she was 15, she strapped her three-year-old, malaria-fevered sister to her back. “It was really hot, I was very hungry, I was scared because I knew her life depended on me getting to this woman [doctor],” Okonjo-Iweala recalled in 2007. “I walked 10 kilometres, putting one foot in front of the other.”
When she arrived, nearly a thousand people were trying to break down the door of a makeshift clinic. Okonjo-Iweala crawled between their legs and climbed through the window, just in time for the doctor to save her sister’s life. Then came the return journey. “It was the shortest walk I ever had. I was so happy that my sister was alive. Today she’s 41 years old, a mother of three and she’s a physician saving other lives.”
From those wretched days, Okonjo-Iweala rose to become Nigeria‘s first female finance minister and nemesis of corruption. She has been lauded by Bono and Gordon Brown, who called her “a brilliant reformer”. Now she is an outside bet for president of the World Bank, an appointment that would be a watershed moment for Africa and the developing world.
The Economist magazine put it thus: “When economists from the World Bank visit poor countries to dispense cash and advice, they routinely tell governments to reject cronyism and fill each important job with the best candidate available. It is good advice. The World Bank should take it. In appointing its next president, the bank’s board should reject the nominee of its most influential shareholder, America, and pick Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.”
The 57-year-old is a triple threat with experience in government, in economics and finance and in development, the magazine argued, a boast that cannot be made by her rivals, Colombia’s José Antonio Ocampo, or Barack Obama’s choice, Jim Yong Kim.
Victory for the Nigerian would shatter the near 70-year duopoly of the World Bank and IMF enjoyed by America and Europe respectively. As emerging economies such as Brazil overtake Britain, it would be an acknowledgement that the global order is recalibrating. It would also be a defining moment for Africa, long under the boot of foreign powers and financial institutions, but now enjoying a renaissance with six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies.
Tolu Ogunlesi, a Nigerian journalist and blogger, said: “I have no doubts about Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s brilliance, competence, and passion for Nigeria. A lot of the goodwill she has today dates back to the work she did, alongside others, to clean up Nigeria’s public sector, and clear our crushing burden of foreign debt.
“But she lost a chunk of that goodwill during the fuel subsidy protests in January. Her spirited defence of the subsidy removal – she was one of the most vocal pro-removal voices – portrayed her as an anti-people person, and there are Nigerians who will never be able to see her in another light.”
The fuel protests have planted doubts over whether Okonjo-Iweala’s political instincts match her economic judgment. But she countered last week: “You have fuel protests in the UK right now. This is what happens in every country. I don’t know why people single Nigeria out.”
No one doubts her determination to fight Africa’s corner. “The tide has absolutely turned,” she told the Observer. “After two decades of lost growth, the last decade has seen strong growth. The continent has rebounded from the financial crisis quicker than others. I feel very optimistic. The world is now looking at Africa as an attractive investment destination as opposed to a place where aid is sent.”
She is seen as an orthodox economist who takes a pragmatically positive view of China’s expanding role on the continent. In a TED talk on aid versus trade in 2007, she argued: “The UK and the US could not have been built today without Africa’s aid. It is all the resources that were taken from Africa including humans that built these countries today. So when they try to give back we shouldn’t be on the defensive. The issue is not that. The issue is how we are using what is being given back? How are we using it? Is it being directed effectively?”
There has been very little buzz around the third candidate, former Colombian Finance Minister Jose Antonio Ocampo – who has wryly made it known to the media that he doesn’t expect to get the job.
The World Bank board is set to make its decision on April 16.