Nicknamed ‘Trouble Woman’ by rivals, Nigeria’s Minister of Finance has made incredible progress fighting corruption both at home and worldwide. Zach James profiles a politician who lets no one stand in her way.
Few advocates of political transparency are as vocal, or as committed, as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Her dedication to exposing and tackling corruption has characterized both of her tenures as Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance of her native Nigeria. Though she is widely admired for the progress she has made, her efforts have also earned enemies among fellow Nigerians, and even within her own government.
Born in 1954 and raised by her grandmother whilst her parents studied in Germany, Okonjo-Iweala’s education was interrupted by the Biafran Civil War, during which time she worked in a soup kitchen, cooking for Nigerian troops. Her experiences during the war had a seminal effect on her life. Millions died and the outbreak of disease caused devastating famine. When her three-year-old sister was suffering from malaria and receiving no medical attention, Okonjo-Iweala carried her 10km and climbed in through the window of an overpopulated doctor’s surgery in a successful bid to save her life. She credits those harrowing childhood experiences as having solidified her determination and her steadfast morality, telling ‘The Guardian’ in 2005 that her nickname, Trouble Woman, doesn’t concern her at all. “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.” She studied economics at Harvard University before earning a PhD in regional economics and development at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She joined the World Bank in 1982, focusing at first on African agriculture, then becoming Country Director for Mongolia, Malaysia, and Cambodia, and subsequently Deputy Vice President for the Middle East. Made a Managing Director in 2007, she assumed responsibility for the operational portfolio in Africa, South and Central Asia, and Europe, and spearheaded several initiatives to assist low-income countries during the financial crisis. In 2009, further promoted to Vice President and Corporate Secretary, she chaired a negotiation for the World Bank’s fund for poor countries, the International Development Association, and secured a funding package of US$49.3 billion. Her achievements in the Nigerian Government are no less impressive. In 2005, she was instrumental in bringing about the unprecedented clearance of US$30 billion of national debt, which Advocacy International predict will save the country US$47 billion in debt service payments before the end of this decade.
“I don’t like the fact that when people mention the name Nigeria, the next thing they say is ‘corruption’. This is a country of 170 million people. 99.9% of them are honest, hard-working citizens,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Okonjo-Iweala’s progress has not been without criticism, however. The blame for the removal of a country-wide fuel subsidy that followed the election of President Goodluck Jonathan in 2010 has been pinned on her, although she says the programme was costing 1.3 trillion Naira (US$7 billion) per year, which exceeds Nigeria’s annual capital budget and was “clearly unsustainable”. The decision triggered the Occupy Nigeria movement – which continues today – in which 16 people have been killed by the Nigerian Police Force. Okonjo-Iweala also faces scrutiny over the problematic introduction of a national minimum wage. Some states have ignored it and other states have altered its value. Nigeria’s image problem Still her fight against corruption continues. Earlier this year, serious accusations from Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi about the mismanagement of the country’s oil industry prompted his removal from office. This did not help Okonjo-Iweala’s desire to improve the nation’s image worldwide. She recently told CNN: “Nigeria does have a problem with corruption, and so do many other countries, including developed countries. I don’t like the fact that when people mention the name Nigeria, the next thing they say is ‘corruption’. This is a country of 170 million people. 99.9% of them are honest, hard-working citizens who just want to get on with their lives and want a government that delivers for them. We need to stop talking [about corruption in general] and identify the specifics.”
‘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,’ Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
The specifics include massive oil theft leading to huge profits in the black market and widespread pension fraud. High numbers of phantom claimants have been regularly salaried. The latter also involves the accountability of civil servants who gain by turning a blind eye. Speaking to the International Monetary Fund, Okonjo-Iweala explained: “There are a lot of vested interests. They are not just going to allow you to do everything without fighting back. And the way they fight back isn’t necessarily nice and neat. On the internet, they put up all kinds of stories about me, or they attack in different ways. What they are trying to do is either take you down or bring your reputation down, because we are trying to correct a few things. So it is not a pretty game, and certainly not a game for those with thin skins, or weak stomachs.” Her rivals will go to astonishing lengths, even kidnapping Okonjo-Iweala’s 83-year-old mother in 2012. “I want it to be crystal clear: It was not a criminal kidnapping,” she said in conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations. “It wasn’t for money. It was related to the fight against corruption. We have this subsidy reinvestment programme, and they thought I was in charge of it and I wasn’t releasing money from it. So in terms of fighting corruption, I don’t need to prove anything.” The kidnappers returned Kamene Okonjo unharmed after five days, but the extremity of their act shows how threatened they were by the impact of Okonjo-Iweala’s political success. She has made vast progress in Africa’s most populous nation, nurturing a revolutionary culture of accountability and transparency to combat corruption.