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.
“The World Bank was the instrument by which structural adjustment was imposed on Africa in the 1990s,” said Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society. “It was the most brutal economic policy, it destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people and caused disruption and terrible insecurity.
“That an African should then become head of it would be hugely symbolic. The bank has been utterly directionless in recent years, and Okonjo-Iweala would be a great choice to change that. She’s a very bright woman, absolutely no nonsense: the bullshit factor is extremely low with her.”
Okonjo-Iweala is a workaholic who, in her little spare time, enjoys swimming and reading autobiographies and fiction by PD James, Arthur Conan Doyle and contemporary African writers such as her compatriot Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Born in 1954, when Nigeria was still part of the British empire, it’s been reported that she perfected her English by reading Enid Blyton, Treasure Island and Bobbsey Twins mysteries. She attended one of the best schools in the country and studied ballet and the piano in what she once described as a “magical and happy childhood”.
But the family’s life was turned upside down by the outbreak of civil war in 1967. Her father became a brigadier in the Biafran army and went to the front line. The family was forced to move from place to place, surviving on one meal a day or less. The war ended with more than a million dead, many lost to starvation.
Aged 18, Okonjo-Iweala went to the US to study economics at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began working for the World Bank and married a surgeon, Ikemba. They have one daughter and three sons including a writer, Uzodinma, whose works include Beasts of No Nation.
Okonjo-Iweala looked set to be just one more great mind lost to the African diaspora. But things were changing at home. In 1999 Nigeria emerged from military dictatorship to hold civilian-run elections. The winner, Olusegun Obasanjo, asked Okonjo-Iweala to write a brief for economic reform. It persuaded him she was the woman to bring the chaotic finances to book and awaken one of Africa’s sleeping giants.
“When I became finance minister they called me Okonjo-Wahala – or ‘Trouble Woman’,” she said in a 2005 interview “It means, ‘I give you hell.’ But I don’t care what names they call me. I’m a fighter; I’m very focused on what I’m doing, and relentless in what I want to achieve, almost to a fault. If you get in my way you get kicked.”
In 2003, Nigeria was deemed the most corrupt place on earth by Transparency International. Okonjo-Iweala, whose typical working day ran from 6am to 11pm, set about slaying the dragon that costs the nation $15bn (£9.37bn) a year. Her team found that there were 5,000 more names on the civil service payroll than people turning up for work; they used biometric testing to separate the real workers from the “ghosts”.
Okonjo-Iweala declared war on the culture of kickbacks, firing officials and ministers and clamping down on the notorious letter and internet confidence trick scams by sending hundreds to jail. She made the energy sector more transparent and targeted political and military leaders who stole crude oil, making powerful enemies and potentially putting her life at risk.
She was the victim of a smear campaign that raised questions over her salary and house in Washington. There were attacks on her reputation on the internet. Her home address was published and her husband received death threats. “Fighting corruption, corruption tends to fight back,” she told the Observer.
Analysts suggest it was because she was too good at her job, and following the money too diligently, that Obasanjo got cold feet and gave her no choice but to resign. She returned to Washington, and her family, as managing director of the World Bank from 2007.
Last year she went back for a second stint as Nigerian finance minister under President Goodluck Jonathan; in fact many regard her as his prime minister in all but name. Not everything has gone smoothly, however: she slashed a $7.5bn (£4.68bn) fuel subsidy that millions of impoverished Nigerians viewed as their only benefit from the country’s oil wealth, resulting in mass protests.
Now she could return to the World Bank yet again, this time succeeding Robert Zoellick in the top job. She is clearly Africa’s choice, having received the backing of South Africa, quite a feat at a time when the continent’s biggest economy and its most populous nation are at each other’s throats over matters petty and profound.
Nigerian-born Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Cape Town-based Centre for Conflict Resolution, said: “It would be incredible. The anachronistic idea of American and European leadership does not reflect the current state of the world. It would be a good thing if someone from the global south were to take over.”
Okonjo-Iweala has the right credentials for the bank, Adebajo added. “She’s been an insider there as managing director and is finance minister of one of the emerging economies which is about to take over from South Africa as the biggest in Africa. She’s certainly someone of substance and would be respected.”
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?”