Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will go down history lane for several reasons, and her signature head-tie is not one of them. The most recent reason for her dominating the news is her achievement as the First Nigerian, First African and first female ever to be confirmed Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, effective from March 1, 2021.
Since the confirmation was made public via a tweet from WTO, congratulatory messages and encomiums have dominated the media space from the political and the economic space. However, this would not be the first of her firsts.
She definitely has a reputation as not being one to shirk a challenge of competency on the basis of her gender, and this can easily be seen in the trail of firsts which litters her profile. She was the first woman to head Nigeria’s finance ministry (twice), paving the way for Kemi Adeosun and Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, who held the position after her. She was also Nigeria’s first female Minister for Foreign Affairs.
It is necessary to remember some of the things which build an enviable profile for Okonjo-Iweala and made her the most preferred candidate as the 7th DG of the WTO despite earlier oppositions.
Ngozi was born on 13 June 1954 in Ogwashi-uku (now part of Delta state), to Professor Chukwuka Okonjo who was the Obi and a member of the Obahai Royal Family of Ogwashi-uku. She later added the surname, Iweala, when she married Ikemba Iweala, a neurosurgeon from Umuahia, Abia State, Nigeria.
She had her early schooling at Queen’s School, Enugu, before moving to Ibadan where she attended St. Anne’s School, Molete, and the International School Ibadan. As a teenager, she travelled to the USA in 1973 to study Economics at Harvard University and graduated Magna Cum Laude with an AB in 1976.
Five years later, she bagged a Ph.D. in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Okonjo-Iweala started out at the World Bank as an intern and returned as a Development Economist after graduation. She worked there for a total of 25 years, spearheading several initiatives to assist low-income countries through financial and food crisis. She held the positions of Corporate Secretary, Vice President and Managing Director Operations at different times.
She was first appointed into the Nigerian federal cabinet under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration as Finance Minister and also Minister of Foreign Affairs, the first female to hold both positions. She was later appointed Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of Economy under President Goodluck Jonathan.
Her efforts to reduce macroeconomic volatility by creating “The Excess Crude Account” to save revenues accruing above a reference benchmark oil price is still considered one of her most notable achievements as Minister. She also built an electronic financial management platform—the Government Integrated Financial Management and Information System (GIFMIS), including the Treasury Single Account (TSA) and the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), to help check corruption in the system.
Okonjo-Iweala was instrumental in helping Nigeria obtain its first ever sovereign credit rating (of BB minus) from Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s in 2006, and her tenure saw Nigeria emerge as the largest economy in Africa.
Afterwards, she joined Lazard, a financial advisory and asset management firm as Senior Advisor. Okonjo-Iweala served as a member of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity (2015–2016), chaired by Gordon Brown, and the Eminent Persons Group on Global Financial Governance, which was established by the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors (2017–2018). She has also served and still sits on several boards and organisations.
She founded NOI-Polls, Nigeria’s first indigenous opinion-research organization, as well as the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (C-SEA) a development research think tank based in Abuja.
She has delivered and published several speeches and write-ups on sustainable debt strategy, promoting Trade as against Aid in low-income countries. In 2018, she published the book Fighting Corruption is Dangerous : The story behind the headlines – A frontline account from Nigeria’s former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, of how to fight corruption and lessons learned for governance and development, and many still consider this her most controversial work.
Okonjo-Iweala serves on several boards including Twitter’s board of directors, a special envoy for the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 fight, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) alliance which she chairs since 2016.
She sits on the boards of Standard Chartered Bank Non-executive member since 2017, the International Advisory Board of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), (since 2017); the International Advisory Panel of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), since 2016; Ex-Officio Member of the Board of Governors of African Development Bank (AfDB), (2003–2006, 2011–2015), and she is a Member of the International Monetary and Finance Committee, International Monetary Fund (IMF), (2003–2006, 2011–2015).
She is also part of several non-profit organisations including Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Member of the Board of Trustees (since 2019), Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Member of the Advisory Board (since 2018), Member of the Board of Directors of Results for Development (R4D) (since 2014); Member of the Advisory Board of Global Business Coalition for Education; Board Chairman of the African Risk Capacity (ARC), Women’s World Banking, Member of the Africa Advisory Council (since 2014), Chair of the Board of Nelson Mandela Institution, and several others.
The WTO DG race
In June 2020, Okonjo-Iweala along with several other candidates indicated their interest to run for the position of Director-General of the Switzerland-based WTO, and the race began. The race is usually one of consensus so when she started to receive the nod from several member-nations, clinching the position seemed like a sealed deal.
The major opposition as at 2020 was South Korea’s Minister for trade, Yoo Myung-hee who had the backing of Donald Trump-led administration of the USA, and this halted what would have been a consensus decision.
Following Joe Biden’s election into the US presidency and predictions that he would declare support for Okonjo-Iweala, Myung Hee withdrew from the race on 5 February. Soon after, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office issued a statement endorsing Okonjo-Iweala and describing her wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy as a critical addition to the office.
Expectedly, Okonjo-Iweala was confirmed into the position on February 15, and is set to succeed Roberto Azevêdo, effective March 1.
It would be near impossible to compute all Okonjo-Iweala’s hundreds of awards and honors in a single article without boring the readers.
However, some interesting awards include the President of the Italian Republic Gold Medal, by Pia Manzu Centre 2011; Global Leadership Award 2011, by Chicago Council on Global Affairs; Finance Minister of the Year 2005 for Africa and the Middle East, by The Banker; Global Finance Minister of the Year 2005, by Euromoney; Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award 2010; and TIME’s European Heroes Award 2004.
In 2017, she received the Madeleine K. Albright Global Development Award, from Aspen Institute; 2017 Vanguard Award, from Howard University. In December 2020, she was named the Forbes African of the Year, 2020, an award previously won by Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina of the AfDB, Muhammad Sanusi II and Aliko Dangote.
She has received honorary degrees from about 14 universities, including the Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, Northern Caribbean University, Jamaica, Brown University, Tel Aviv University and Trinity College, Dublin.
She was listed as one of the 50 Greatest World Leaders (Fortune, 2015), the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in the World (Forbes, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014), the Top 3 Most Powerful Women in Africa (Forbes, 2012), the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World (TIME, 2014), the Top 100 Global Thinkers (Foreign Policy, 2011 and 2012), among others.
Okonjo-Iweala was conferred High National Honours from the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire and the Republic of Liberia, and also holds the honors of Nigeria’s Commander of the Federal Republic (CFR).