Spotlight On Nigeria’s ‘Secret Weapon,’ Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Spotlight On Nigeria’s ‘Secret Weapon,’ Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

The secret weapon behind Nigeria’s economic renaissance is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the country’s minister of finance and economy since 2011, OZY.com reports.

Harvard-educated Okonjo-Iweala, 59, has led landmark reforms to combat corruption, reduce foreign debt and attract investment in Nigeria, according to the report.

Nigeria’s economy is growing twice as fast as rival South Africa’s, and has almost as much in foreign reserves — around $50 billion. Its gross domestic product may be smaller — $292 billion compared to South Africa’s $354 billion — but it’s catching up, the report said. The country’s GDP per capita doubled from $1,400 in 2000 to about $2,800 in 2012.

With a Ph.D in regional economic development from MIT, Okonjo-Iweala spent 12 years at World Bank, including five years as managing director. In 2012, she narrowly lost an election to Jim Yong Kim to become the institution’s next president.

But what sets her apart is her character — optimistic, realistic and determined to change the world’s perception of Nigeria and Nigerians’ perceptions of themselves, OZY.com reports.

Okonjo-Iweala is in favor of privatization and cutting governmental spending. One of just a few female finance ministers in the world, she considers her gender an advantage. “Being a woman makes you able to deal with a lot of things — and still keep sane,” she told The Guardian in a 2005 interview. “I think women have less ego. If someone’s saying things to make me feel bad, I don’t care as long as I get the job done.”

As the mother of four, she draws parallels between economic management and parenting. “If your child has been doing bad things and they come to you and say, ‘Mother, I want to change, please help me,’ would you say, ‘No. You’re hopeless. You can’t change?’”

Debt, corruption and oil dependency are roadblocks on Nigeria’s path to prosperity that Okonjo-Iweala wants to eliminate.

She believes in Nigeria’s potential for change, OZY.com reports. “It’s a country of spirit,
entrepreneurship, drive of creativity, and I want all Nigerian people to know it’s a country
that we can be proud of,” she said.

In 2005 she persuaded the Paris Club of Creditors to cancel $18 billion (60 percent) of Nigeria’s external debt in exchange for paying off the remaining 40 percent with a portion of the nation’s energy revenues.

Then she set about attracting foreign investment but first needed to improve Nigeria’s
business reputation by tackling its endemic corruption. She introduced the Advance Fee Fraud and Other Fraud Related Offences Act in 2006 and implemented new transparency practices such as publishing states’ budgets in the media.

Okonjo-Iweala volunteered information to Transparency International, a
watchdog group that ranked Nigeria the most corrupt place on Earth in 2003. The group acknowledged Nigeria’s recovery of $33 million to its coffers. Corrupt officials such as James Ibori, a governor who allegedly embezzled $79 million, have been punished. In May 2011, the ministry drafted tougher money-laundering policies and freedom of information legislation that gives citizens access to public records so they can hold officials and institutions accountable.

“Does it mean the problem is over?” Okonjo-Iweala asked in her TED talk. “The answer is no. There’s still a long way to go, but that there’s a will there. And those successes are being chalked up on this very important fight.”

The minister’s next challenge was to persuade western nations to invest in an environment more hospitable to foreign business and less dependent on oil. Nigeria
managed to attract foreign investors in energy, banking and telecoms. In 2012 alone, Nigeria received $85.73 billion in foreign direct investment — much of it from Nigerians living abroad, mainly in Europe.

Okonjo-Iweala’s efficiency won admiration in the West, OZY.com reports.

Time magazine called her “one of the world’s heroes.” Forbes named her one of the world’s most powerful women. Former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said she was “a brilliant reformer.”

Yet she has also faced criticism, mostly for failing to use the country’s oil income to ease
the poverty that affects 60 percent of the population. Despite a decade of 7-percent economic growth, poverty in Nigeria is increasing. Many citizens were outraged by Okonjo-
Iweala’s $240,000 salary, considerably higher than the $6,000 base ministerial salary. She defended her salary by saying it is temporary and has been paid for partly by donations from a diaspora fund.

Okonjo-Iweala’s 2011 decision to remove a popular oil subsidy lost her supporters,
especially among the poorest who see cheap fuel as the only benefit they
receive from the government. Gas prices doubled and widespread disapproval led to Occupy Nigeria protests in January 2012.

Her opposition accuses her of promoting the interests of Western finance ahead
of Nigeria’s. Many blame Okonjo-Iweala’s policies for reducing funding to agriculture, a sector that accounts for two thirds of Nigerian jobs, in favor of industries more attractive to
foreigners such as telecommunications.

“I don’t think she is doing anything wrong,” said Yet Zainab Usman, an expert in Nigerian
economics at Oxford University. “The problem is structural. It is crucial to grow the
economy, but the industries that are driving growth — mostly oil but also banking and
telecoms — are not job-generating ones. They require very skilled labor, and in a country
with 70 percent illiteracy, this gap will inevitably take time to close.”

Okonjo-Iweala is determined to make Nigeria one of the world’s top 20 economies by 2020, OZY.com reports. Others aren’t so optimistic.

“If you really want to be in Africa, think about investing,” she urges developed nations.
“Because those who miss the boat now will miss it forever.”