Profile: How Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became Africa’s biggest policy superstar


On the 15th of July 2020, Nigeria’s candidate for Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was at the organization’s Geneva headquarters. As part of the election process, Okonjo-Iweala attended the General Council meeting where she participated in a press conference to share the outlines of her candidacy with WTO member countries.

For thirty minutes, NOI introduced her candidacy briefly before taking on a barrage of questions from members of the world press. It was a solid, confident appearance and NOI touched on many specifics; from the importance of multilateralism to the significance of her possible selection on girls and women around the world. She left a strong impression with her response to a final question that queried her expertise in big trade negotiations. “I am a development economist and you cannot do that without looking at trade.” She stressed, before adding, “I have been doing it my whole career at the World Bank.”

This moment was the most passionate NOI had been the entire session and it made perfect sense that it would follow a perceived doubt on her qualifications. It wasn’t the first time she would be labelled an outsider either.

Since she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and earned a doctorate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), NOI has carefully curated an impressive career. One that had her start as an intern at the World Bank in 1983 and would see her rise through the ranks working in different capacities like country director for Mongolia, Malaysia and Cambodia; and deputy vice president for the middle east region.

After serving for a little over two decades at the World Bank, largely unknown to majority of Nigerians, NOI became a national figure when she accepted the invitation of President Olusegun Obasanjo, then heading into his second term to serve as finance minister. She was the first woman to serve in this capacity and since her stint, at least three other women have held this position. “It never crossed my mind to be finance minister,” she told the UK Guardian. “Not because I don’t want to serve my country but because of my family. I didn’t want to miss any step of their growing up. And my youngest son was still in school. But I was persuaded this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”


When NOI first arrived the country to resume at the finance ministry, it wasn’t exactly a welcome reception that was waiting. She was viewed suspiciously especially by entrenched political systems as an outsider, a tool put in place by the Bretton Woods institutions to recolonize the economy. For good reason too. The country was still suffering aftershocks of the IMF prescribed Structural Adjustment Program of the eighties and multilateral agencies were still viewed with suspicion.

Enjoying the support of the president, NOI overcame her initial doubts and put together a small team that included former World Bank vice president Obiageli Ezekwesili and Governor of Kaduna state, Mallam Nasir El Rufai. In preparation for a meeting with the then British Prime minister, NOI and her team put together a 17-page document that would eventually become the basis for the reforms she would see through as minister. Details of this would be published in her 2012 book, Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria, a chronicle of her ministerial experience.

A 5-part matrix housing objectives such as fighting corruption, public expenditure reforms, and macroeconomic stability became the thrust of everything that NOI sought to achieve and by most accounts, her first stint as finance minister was the more successful one.

This is because of the sheer breadth and number of reforms that NOI and her team were able to put in place before her abrupt departure in 2006, shortly after Obasanjo moved her to the foreign ministry and stripped her of the leadership of the economic intelligence team. For her efforts at economic reform, she earned herself the nickname, Okonjo-wahala.

NOI walked the talk and brought back transparency into the processing of government finances with the landmark publication in the newspapers of the country’s monthly oil-based funding allocations to each of the thirty-six states. She oversaw Nigeria’s first sovereign credit ratings from Fitch and Standard and Poor’s, BB- at the time. Her most significant and highest profile achievement though was framing and leading the negotiations responsible for the Paris Club writing off $18 billion of Nigeria’s external debt. In return, the country facilitated a payment of $12 billion to the creditors.
In an interview with The Independent, NOI recalls a meeting with ally Gordon Brown, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the lengthy debt relief process, “The first thing I said was: “Look I don’t want anything from you.” “Nigeria is turning over a new leaf, we’re implementing a very vigorous reform programme. I don’t want you to do anything. But watch us perform and if in the next 12 to 18 months you believe that we have done well then I’ll come back to talk to you about debt relief.”
It was a ballsy move considering Nigeria had never been able to sustain any reform program for a lengthy period of time. But NOI was nothing if not dogged. Helpful also was the political will from the president. After topping the Transparency International poll as the most corrupt nation on earth in 2002 Nigeria rose six places in the ranking and was named one of the 21 most improved countries by 2005.

NOI, famous for her colorful Ankara prints and coordinating head gear, led efforts to improve Nigeria’s macroeconomic management including the implementation of an oil-price based fiscal rule. Revenues accruing above a reference benchmark oil price were saved in a special account termed the Excess Crude Account. Even though the legality of this has since been queried, the savings came in handy and helped reduce macroeconomic volatility.

Star power

When NOI was born to the Obahai royal family of Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State in 1954, Nigeria was still a British colony. Both of her parents, Kamene and the late Chukwuka Okonjo were professors and expected academic excellence from their children. He was an educator so the family moved around. Because of this, NOI was educated at Queen’s School, Enugu, St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan, and the International School Ibadan. As a teenager, she was once denied a holiday abroad because her father considered the cost of the flight ticket and felt it would be put to better use paying the fees of at least four secondary school students.

When the civil war broke out, her father joined the Biafran army and the family lost everything. NOI worked briefly in the frontlines as a cook for the Biafran rebels in Port Harcourt. “I have lasting memories of children dying around me,” she told F&D in an interview.

Her initial plan was to attend Cambridge. After she had paid a deposit to the school, a last-minute family decision was made so she could be close to her mother who was then taking postgraduate classes at Boston University. On arriving Harvard, the young NOI was shocked to discover that the dorms were co-ed and she was required to share bathrooms with the opposite sex. To her surprise she took to her Economics lectures and was content following in the footsteps of her father. She married Ikemba Iweala, a now retired neurosurgeon and emergency physician in 1979. They have four children – one daughter, Onyinye Iweala and three sons including Uzodinma Iweala, author of the novel Beasts of No Nation.

Fighting corruption is dangerous

After serving in the Obasanjo administration, NOI returned to Washington and to the waiting arms of the World Bank where she was appointed Managing Director, Operations. As managing director, NOI was the number 2 official and had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolio across three continents.

She took the lead on 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. She worked in this capacity for four years when country came calling once again.

The newly elected Goodluck Jonathan, seeking to legitimize his government in the eyes of the world, invited NOI once again to her former job. This time to sweeten the deal, he added the title of coordinating minister of the economy, essentially making her first among equals in his cabinet. Who could resist?

‘I went back to show young people that there are people who love their country, who want to serve,” is NOI’s response to people who wondered why she would go back to a job that seemed to offer little rewards. Without the forceful political cover that Obasanjo was noted to shield his political appointees with, and despite the bigger portfolio, NOI’s second tenure as finance minister was more troublesome.
Still she did manage some wins.

Some of the high points include overhauling Nigeria’s public financial systems, stimulating the housing sector with the establishment of the Nigerian Mortgage Refinance Corporation (NMRC). She empowered women and youth with the Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria Programme (GWIN); a gender responsive budgeting system, and the Youth Enterprise with Innovation programme (YouWIN) to support young entrepreneurs. These helped create much needed job. YouWIN has been evaluated by the World Bank as one of the most effective programmes of its kind globally.
Under NOI’s leadership, the National Bureau of Statistics carried out a re-basing exercise of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This was the first exercise in 24 years. Nigeria emerged as the largest economy in Africa.

But after four years, Nigerians, disillusioned with the prevailing system, spoke with their votes and booted the Jonathan administration out of office amidst multiple corruption scandals, a humanitarian crisis in the North-East and an economy hovering on the brink.

Attempting to set the record straight, in 2018, NOI published Fighting Corruption is Dangerous her answer to those who have dismissed her second coming as largely ineffectual. If the title of the book sounds just a tad self-congratulatory, it is only because sometimes setting the record straight and rolling out a list of one’s achievement aren’t mutually exclusive.

In the book, she narrates how her resolve and smart thinking saved the country millions of dollars on at least one occasion. President Jonathan had invited her to assess a deal put forward by an Abu Dhabi group to refurbish the naval dockyard to the tune of $2billion sourced from a loan that would be guaranteed by the Nigerian government. It smelled fishy and she registered her reservations and government passed. The same group eventually sold the repackaged deal to the Mozambique government, saddling the country with $850 million in bad debt.

The Woman for the job.

This isn’t the first time that NOI would be vying for leadership of a multilateral institution. In 2012, she went against convention and made a valiant attempt to succeed her former boss Robert Zoellick as president of the World Bank Group. While this candidacy did not promise a radical overhaul of the 76-year-old institution, it was at least exciting in the sense that NOI was among a crop of candidates challenging the selection process.

Historically the USA always endorses its citizen to lead the group and even though Barack Obama’s pick, Jim Yong Kim was the clear favorite, NOI managed to secure endorsements from the editorial boards of The New York Times and the Economist. With her redoubtable qualifications and wide experience, she campaigned on the strength of her bonafides and was considered the most qualified for the role. Obama’s candidate was selected anyway.

After the Jonathan administration ended, NOI returned to her life’s work, in policy, economics and development. She joined Lazard briefly as a senior advisor. She has been the Board Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, since 2016. She serves on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Center for Global Development, among others. She is also the chair of African Risk Capacity, a specialised agency of the African Union to help member states prepare for and respond to extreme weather events and natural disasters. She sits on the board of Twitter and on Standard Chartered PLC. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, NOI has been appointed African Union special envoy to mobilize international financial support as well as WHO special envoy for access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.

NOI believes all these experiences as well as her wide networks will factor into play in the selection process for the leadership of the WTO. Her candidacy has been endorsed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) but the African Union (AU) has not been forthcoming. Not surprising considering NOI remains one of three African candidates including a woman from Kenya eyeing the plum gig.

Despite the wrinkles, NOI isn’t new to diplomatic haggling. She remains optimistic, telling The Africa Report’s Patrick Smith just after talking up policy at the Geneva press conference, “You need energy, you need enthusiasm, you need to see opportunity where there are challenges, and that’s me.”

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