by Seyi Lawal
Come Monday, the World Bank board would make its decision on who its next president will be,
According to the Wall Street Journal, this is the first time any of the countries have nominated a challenger to the U.S. pick. But though Kim, president of Dartmouth College, is likely to secure his win easily after racking up endorsements from world leaders and holding support from the U.S. and Europe, dozens of former World Bank officials, in a letter to the bank’s board, called Okonjo-Iweala the most qualified candidate, one who “would hit the ground running and get things done from the start.”
Also, the World Conference of Mayors, which represents thousands of city leaders around the world, said “no other candidate will be able to match her many years of financial expertise.” Even American poet Maya Angelou spoke out in support of Okonjo-Iweala.
Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala has highlighted throughout the race her own life experiences, growing up in a Nigerian village and living through a civil war “where eating one meal a day was a luxury.”
“I know what it meant to go to the stream to fetch water. I know what it means not to have a place to sleep because you are running from the enemy,” she said Monday at a public forum in Washington sponsored by the Center for Global Development, a think tank, and the Washington Post.
In 2011, she left the bank for her second posting as Nigeria’s finance minister. The big policy overhauls of her administration—a new oil industry law, privatization of public utilities, a sovereign-wealth fund for oil revenue that would be more protected than Nigeria’s Excess Crude Account—all are stalled in Nigerian legislative politics.
After the removal of costly subsidies for motor fuel—an attempt to shore up and improve transparency of government finances—gas prices shot up and street protesters burned effigies of the 57-year-old mother of four.
The government later backtracked and restored more than half of the subsidy.
But Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, often garbed in batik print dresses and colorful headwraps, has experience breaking through barriers throughout her life: She was the first woman to hold a managerial position at the World Bank in the Mideast in the early 1990s, and moved up the institution’s ranks.
As the bank’s director of organizational change, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala sought to implement a world-wide information-sharing program for the bank.
She spent much of her tenure soothing disputes among staff members who worried the move would dilute their authority. The struggles over funding and influence delayed the program, according to World Bank staffers.
“Her record there was frankly pretty modest,” said a senior World Bank official. “There was not exactly forward motion on matters having to do with change.”
During her interview Monday with the World Bank board, she said she shared a list of 11 frustrations she had tallied during her tenure at the bank. Her campaign was built in part on lessons from prior experiences there. “There’s quite a bit of inertia,” she said at the forum. “You have to have the courage to say, ‘Look, certain things that we’ve always made this way, they have to go.’ ”
The U.S. has controlled the World Bank presidency since the institution’s founding after World War II, in an unwritten pact with European nations. In exchange, the U.S. supports Europe’s choice for the head of the International Monetary Fund. The U.S. and Europe each hold the largest voting blocs in the international institutions, preventing other nations for securing the post with their own citizens.
In 1997, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala became World Bank Country Director for Laos, Malaysia, and Cambodia—one of the first Africans to hold such a post outside her continent. Just as she took over, Thailand’s currency plunged, tipping the region into the Asian financial crisis.
Some World Bank and International Monetary Fund staffers saw the crisis as an opportunity to take on corruption, as protesters had done in Indonesia, where demonstrations successfully pushed out President Suharto in May, 1998.
In Cambodia, where officials were accused of profiting from an ecologically destructive illegal logging industry, the IMF suspended loans. Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala took a more diplomatic approach—meeting frequently with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, while maintaining aid. He passed new anti-logging laws just before she left in 2000, but in the five years after that, black market timber sales soared and a third of the country’s forest was cleared.
Back home, Nigeria was deep in debt after 30 years of on-off military rule. One junta leader, Gen. Sani Abacha, had squirreled an estimated $3 billion to $8 billion into foreign bank accounts, according to corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala returned, first as a World Bank technical adviser, then as finance minister. She came in with a program to trim Nigeria’s bureaucracy, cull government ghost workers, force state-owned companies to pay their taxes, impose open-bidding rules on state contracts, and limit the amount of oil revenue that went to Nigeria’s powerful state governors—all 36 of whom opposed it.
“Ngozi stepped on a lot of toes,” said Nigeria analyst Razia Khan at Standard Chartered PLC. “Reform, when it really started to confront some of the vested interests, the political support for it just fell away completely.”
Before being pushed out in 2006, she made some inroads. In trips abroad, she won $18 billion in debt relief from the Paris Club of creditors. She recovered about $1.2 billion from Gen. Abacha’s family and foreign bank accounts. She won Nigeria its first two sovereign debt ratings: a BB- from both Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s.
She also set up Nigeria’s Excess Crude Account, which allowed Africa’s top crude producer, for the first time, to save windfall revenue from unexpectedly high oil prices.
Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala returned to the World Bank to assist the World Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery initiative: So far, it has recovered about $1.4 billion of the up to $1.6 trillion in corrupt and criminal money that circulates the world’s financial system each year, according to the bank.
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