By Emeka Chiaghanam
ONLY few among her contemporaries bestride the path that Ngozi Okonji-Iwela threads. Articulate and unassuming Ngozi, Nigeria’s former Finance Minister, Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Foreign Affairs embodies the ‘total woman’. She is a testimony of what education and exposure could manifest when offered the platform for expression.
Fiercely intelligent, Ngozi’s illustrious career embodies what every woman who wants to reach the pinnacle of her vocation envisages. She is Nigeria’s first female Finance Minister and Foreign Minister and has come a long way in her chosen career. She made mark at international level before heeding the call to serve her fatherland. Ngozi, Harvard trained economist served two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria (2003-2006, 2011-2015) under the leadership of President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Umaru Musa Yar Adu’a respectively.
Before heeding the call to serve Nigeria, she spent the first 21 years of her career as a development economist at the World Bank, where she returned after her first term as Minister of Finance as a Managing Director in December, 2007. As Managing Director, she had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe, and Central Asia.
She spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during the 2008 – 2009 food crises and later during the financial crisis
Daughter of a monarch from Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, Ngozi was born on 13th June, 1954. She was educated at St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan. The International School Ibadan and Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude with an AB in Economics in 1976, and earned her PhD in Regional Economics and Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1981.
The internationally renowned economist joined the World Bank in 1982. Her first experience in the World Bank came through her internship program. Upon graduation, she applied for the young professionals program of the World Bank and was absorbed. In her first stint with the world apex bank, her economic development and financial expertise came to the fore, enabling her rise to the post of Vice President. She resigned her job in 2003, when President Obasanjo appointed her Nigeria’s Finance Minister. In the year 2005, under her leadership, the country closed a deal with the Paris Club and convinced it to pay close to $12 million to the country, a part of the money that it owed to Nigeria.
She has played an important role in public finance transparency and has in-depth knowledge of Africa and international affairs. During her time in government, she spearheaded Nigeria’s successful program to obtain debt relief and is credited with developing reforms that helped improve governmental transparency to stabilise and grow the Nigerian economy.
She introduced the practice of publishing each state’s monthly financial allocation from the Federal Government of Nigeria in the newspapers. This action went a long way in increasing transparency in governance.
Her efforts also led to improve Nigeria’s macroeconomic management including the implementation of an oil-price based fiscal rule where revenues accruing above benchmark oil price were saved in a special account, “The Excess Crude Account” which helped to reduce macroeconomic volatility.
Through her gender responsive budgeting system, she empowered Nigeria’s women and youth with the Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria Programme (GWIN), and the highly acclaimed Youth Enterprise with Innovation programme (YouWIN); a highly acclaimed programme to support entrepreneurs that created thousands of jobs.
On the current unemployment rate and youth restiveness across the country, Okonjo-Iweala advised the youths to create their own jobs and be employers of labour. “I will advise young people not to wait for employment. They should create jobs to employ six people or more. During my time in government, we had a programme called YouWin designed to support young entrepreneurs. The whole idea was to have a business plan competition.
“The idea was that they should create jobs. In addition, each created 9-10 jobs. The World Bank did an evaluation of it and found it good. I do believe that the government should come in. We started a peer to peer mentoring. Now, one of the things I want to say is that creating employment is not only about struggles, it is about managing success”, she said
For her exemplary work, she has received recognition and a number of awards. She won the Time Europe Hero Award and This Day Nigeria Minister of the Year award in 2004. In the year 2005, she was conferred Euromoney Magazine’s Global Finance Minister of the Year Award and Financial Time’s African Minister of the Year Award. In 2012, she was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers”, one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine in 2014, one of the “50 Greatest World Leaders” by Fortune magazine in 2015.
She is married to Dr. Ikemba Iweala, a neurosurgeon and they have four children.