Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been one of the brightest hopes for Nigeria. A former World Bank vice-president, she left the Bank in 2003 to return to Nigeria and serve as Olusegun Obasanjo’s finance minister. This is far from an easy job in a country routinely ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world.
But Okonjo-Iweala made incredible progress quite rapidly. Under her leadership, Nigeria tripled foriegn currency reserves, slashed inflation in half and experienced GDP growth of 6% per year. She negotiated a deal in which Nigeria received $18 billion in debt cancellation from bilaterial Club of Paris creditors in exchange for $12 billion made in payments, repurposed from oil revenues, which have increased markedly due to the high global price of oil. Time Magazine honored her accomplishments, calling her a “hero” in 2004.
A largely sympathetic portrait in the Guardian makes it clear that the position was a complicated one for Okonjo-Iweala. Some ministers resented the large salary she earned – with money provided by the UN to encourage foriegn-trained experts to return to ministry jobs, Okonjo-Iweala received a salary of $240,000 a year, in contrast to the $6,000 other ministers received. And because reforming the Nigerian financial system requires attacking official corruption, her actions were often very unpopular with compatriots. As she told the Guardian, “When I became finance minister they called me Okonjo-Wahala – or Trouble Woman,” says the 51-year-old, with a throaty chuckle. “It means ‘I give you hell.’ ”
Her hell-raising aside, it came as a major shock when Obasanjo moved Okonjo-Iweala from the Finance Ministry to the post of Foreign Minister in late June. The President’s decision could be read as an attempt to sideline the fiery minister, or to honor her, making her the public face of Nigerian diplomacy. And she was left in charge of the country’s economic team, leaving foreign investors confident that Nigeria wouldn’t slide back into old ways of doing business.
There’s surely going to be a lot of ink – and bits – spilled about this development in the next few days. Saharareporters is already on the case, reporting that Okonjo-Iweala “has been throughly demystified and ridiculed by the government who once accused her of orchestrating a story about a finacial scandal regarding payments to an offshore agency from her new ministry.”
I’ll be very interested to hear what Sokari Ekine has to say about the situation, as well as from Ike Okonta, who had an excellent, thoughful reflection on Dr. Onkojo-Iweala a year back. And check out a comic strip on Naijaland suggesting Dr. Onkojo-Iweala as a future presidential candidate…
By the way, if you’re curious about Dr. Dora Akunyili, namechecked in the cartoon, there’s an excellent profile on the BBC about the woman working to rid Nigeria of counterfit drugs.
Update – I traded email about this piece briefly with Sokari, who is on holiday and hopes to write about the situation when she returns. She pointed out that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s resignation wasn’t the only disturbing recent news from Nigeria: Mr. Bukhari Bello, who was the executive secretary of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, was sacked with little explanation in early July. It would be very disturbing if Obasanjo’s reaction to giving up his campaign for a third term would be to sideline powerful and effective critics from within the government.