FELIX NWANERI writes on the recent recognition of Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance and current Director General of Word Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr. (Mrs.) Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala, as one of 2021 100 Most Influential People by United States-based Time Magazine
Former Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. (Mrs.) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has continued to break new grounds at the global stage even when a few loathe her back home in Nigeria.
Like the king, who William Shakespeare, in his book – Richard II – said “not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm, off his anointed head,” Okonjo-Iweala added another feather to her cap last week when she made 2021 Time’s 100 Most Influential People list Okonjo-Iweala, who is the Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), is the only Nigerian on the list.
Others on the list include United States (U.S.) president, Joe Biden as well as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex Prince Harry and Meghan.
Other notable honourees are tennis star, Naomi Osaka; American singer, Britney Spears; Beninese singer-songwriter, actress, and activis, Angelique Kidjo; immediate past U.S. president, Donald Trump, South African-born American entrepreneur, Elon Musk and U.S. vice-president, Kamala Harris, among others.
Harry and Meghan, who were full of praises for Okonjo-Iweala on the recognition, wrote: “What will it take to vaccinate the world? Unity, cooperation and leaders like Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala.
“As the first African and first woman to lead the World Trade Organization, a 164-member group of nations that oversees trade across the world, Okonjo-Iweala took on the role of director- general this March at a watershed moment for our global health and well-being.
Make no mistake, her job affects every person, family and community. “As we face a constant barrage of vaccine misinformation, bureaucratic slowdowns across both government and industry, and the rise of variants that underscore the urgency of the situation,
Okonjo-Iweala has shown us that to end the pandemic, we must work together to equip every nation with equitable vaccine access. “Our conversations with her have been as informative as they are energizing.
This is partly because, despite the challenges, she knows how to get things done – even between those who don’t always agree – and does so with grace and a smile that warms the coldest of rooms.
“The fragility of our world right now cannot be overstated. Just over a quarter of the nearly eight billion global population is fully vaccinated. Achieving vaccine equity is a global duty of compassion for one another. Our hope is that guided by strong leaders like Ngozi, we can get there soon.”
Okonjo-Iweala has before now been listed as one of the 50 greatest world leaders; top 100 global thinkers; top 100 most powerful women in the world and top there most powerful women in Africa, among several other global recognitions.
Nigeria’s first female Finance minister as well as first female Foreign Affairs minister, Okonjo-Iweala, is a renowned economist best known for her work at the World Bank, including several years as its vice president. In 2012, she made history as the first female and black candidate to contest for the bank’s presidency but was not successful.
She was first appointed as Finance minister by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003. In October 2005, she led the Nigerian team that struck a deal with the Paris Club, a group of bilateral creditors, to pay a portion of Nigeria’s external debt of $12 billion in return for an $18 billion debt write-off.
She also initiated processes that helped improved Nigeria’s macro-economic management and reduced macro-economic volatility as well as the practice of publishing Federal Government’s monthly allocation of each state in newspapers.
With support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), Okonjo-Iweala built an electronic financial management platform, which helped in eliminating many ghost workers in the system and thereby saved government huge sums of funds. Besides these, she was instrumental to boosting Nigeria’s credit rating from Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s. All her initiatives tackled corruption to an extent and restored the faith of investors in Nigeria.
This, in turn, helped to create more jobs for Nigerians. Leaving Obasanjo’s government in 2007, she was appointed as a Managing Director of World Bank Group and she led several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during food and financial crises.
She made a come-back as Nigeria’s Minister of Finance in 2011, with the expanded portfolio of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy upon her appointment by then President Goodluck Jonathan. Her legacy during that administration includes strengthening of Nigeria’s public financial systems and stimulating the housing sector, with the establishment of the Nigerian Mortgage Refinance Corporation (NMRC).
She also empowered Nigeria’s women and the youth with the Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria Programme (GWIN), a gender responsive budgeting system and the highly acclaimed Youth Enterprise with Innovation programme (YouWIN), to support entrepreneurs.
Under her leadership, the National Bureau of Statistics carried out a re-basing exercise of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the first in 24 years, which saw Nigeria emerge as the largest economy in Africa.
These feats, notwithstanding, it was allegations of mismanagement of public funds against Okonjo-Iweala by the present All Progressives Congress (APC) administration, when Jonathan’s second term bid failed in 2015.
The then governor of Edo State, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, stoked the fire during the last days of the Jonathan administration by accusing Okonjo-Iweala of manipulating figures and being economical with the truth on the parlous state of the economy, which APC claimed, President Muhammadu Buhari inherited.
Oshiomhole, who made the claim in reaction to a publication by the Federal Ministry of Finance, highlighting a total of N2.92 trillion as the share of the 36 state governments’ allocation from the Excess Crude Account between 2011 and 2014, insisted that Jonathan relinquished a broke Nigeria and that the Federal Government would have been in a worse shape than the 36 states if not for its resolve to resort to borrowing to pay wages.
He added that Okonjo-Iweala as Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, mismanaged the economy to the extent that waivers, running into several hundreds of millions of naira were granted to various organisations, illegally.
But Okonjo-Iweala, who is not one to be cowed easily, not only fired back, she described Oshiomhole’s allegations as “baseless and full of gaping holes, both in facts and logic.” She noted that the allegation against her was not a surprise because she was being targeted,
particularly by governors whose states could not pay salaries for daring to publish how the Excess Crude Account (ECA) was shared.
According to her, releasing the ECA details showed that allegations about missing oil money in the ECA under her watch were wild and lacking any substance.
The verbal war continued, when Oshiomhole and his Kaduna State counterpart, Mallam Nasir el Rufai, said about $2.1 billion was withdrawn from the $4.1 billion left in the ECA in November 2014 “without authorisation.” But Okonjo-Iweala described the allegation as false, malicious and baseless.
“It is clear that this is the latest chapter of a political witch-hunt by elements who are attempting to use the respected National Economic Council for ignoble purposes having failed abysmally in their previous attempts to tar the Okonjo-Iweala name,” she averred.
The brickbat launched against Okonjo-Iweala after her service to fatherland did not deter the Amazon, who many refer to as a “Shining Star.” Shortly after leaving government (2015), she joined Lazard as a senior advisor, and in January 2016, was appointed chairperson of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.
She also co-chaired the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate, with Nicholas Stern and Paul Polman. In July 2017, she became an independent non-executive director at Standard Chartered Plc. Okonjo-Iweala was in 2020, appointed as a member of South Africa’s Presidential Economic Advisory Council.
The council made up of local and international economic leaders advised President Cyril Ramaphosa on economic policies.
The icing on the cake for the woman of many firsts was on February 15, 2021, when the General Council of World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreed by consensus to select Okonjo-Iweala as the organization’s seventh Director-General. By that, she became the first woman and the first African to be chosen as Director-General of the world body.
The General Council decision followed months of uncertainty, which arose when the U.S. government, then under Donald Trump, initially refused to join the consensus around Okonjo-Iweala and threw its support behind Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea.
But following Ms Yoo’s decision on 5 February to withdraw her candidacy, the Joe Biden administration, which succeeded that of Trump, dropped the U.S. objection and announced instead that Washington extends its “strong support” to the candidacy of Okonjo-Iweala.
Assuming office on March I, 2021, Okonjo- Iweala said a key priority for her would be to work with WTO’s member countries to quickly address the economic and health consequences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
She has continued to walk her talk since then by insisting that WTO members must respond urgently to the need for a multilateral solution to ensure equitable access to vaccines worldwide.