Time magazine called her one of the world’s heroes; Gordon Brown hailed her as ‘a brilliant reformer’. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, one of only two female finance ministers in the world, tells Ann McFerran why she left her family in the US to rescue Nigeria’s ailing economy
Monday 1 August 2005 11.11 BST Last modified on Wednesday 3 August 2005 11.11 BST
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on LinkedIn Share on Google+
The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarificatons column, Wednesday August 3 2005
In the article below, we incorrectly said that she was one of only two female finance ministers in the world. We said the other was Luisa Diogo, the prime minister and finance minister of Mozambique. We overlooked Saara Kuugongelwa-Amathila, the minister of finance in Namibia.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala relishes a good fight. Which is just as well. Since Nigeria’s president persuaded her to sort out the country’s infamously chaotic finances and rein in its notorious corruption she’s been hailed by world leaders and reviled by her fellow countrymen.
“When I became finance minister they called me Okonjo-Wahala – or Trouble Woman,” says the 51-year-old, with a throaty chuckle. “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.”
In 2003 Okonjo-Iweala left her job as World Bank vice-president and her husband and four children in Washington to work 20-hour days in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Her task: nothing less than a total shake-up of the country ranked the second most corrupt in the world, after Bangladesh. Her goal: to ensure that more of its oil money (£25bn last year), rather than being squandered by a tiny elite, goes towards providing clean water, schools and health care for its 137 million population, most of whom survive on 60p a day.
Transforming the huge oil-rich nation that is home to one in five Africans and the size of Europe has been an arduous and often bloody battle. Two years into her appointment, however, Okonjo-Iweala is winning, albeit making herself unpopular with many powerful Nigerians, and leaving casualties in her wake.
She has sacked corrupt officials and ministers; reduced Nigeria’s bloated civil service; and cracked down on letter and internet scams that persuade the unsuspecting to part with their savings on the pretext of releasing “millions”. She has even managed to cut back “bunkering”, the Nigerian practice whereby government officials and the army steal crude oil.
Last year Time magazine named Okonjo-Iweala as one of the world’s heroes; this May, Gordon Brown hailed her as “a brilliant reformer”.
For her, Nigeria’s image is as important as its economy. “Nigeria is changing,” she insists. “I take it too personally when people say bad things about this country. But Nigeria is coming into its own, and becoming a leader in the continent.”
We meet in a London hotel between meetings with the Treasury. Okonjo-Iweala is diminutive, warm, charismatic, dynamic – and exhausted. “I must be a masochist,” she wails, kicking off her shoes. “Why do I do this when it’s so hard? Why am I going through some document at 3am trying to work out how to get through some tricky situation? Why am I not with my children in Washington?”
Characteristically, she answers her own question. “When I see vested interests still try to undermine me, I know it means I’m successful. When I manage to convince one person to change, I think this is why I’m here. The ability to change things is a powerful incentive.”
She says she’s always been a fighter, “because my family are fighters by nature. I’m told I’m like my father, and he was the most wonderful man. But I think he was gentler than me.”
She was born in Nigeria, and was 14 at the outbreak of the Biafran war. Her parents, professors of sociology and economics, could have sent her to relations in the United States. Instead her father, by this time a brigadier in the Biafran army, chose to keep her at home. The family lost everything and experienced considerable hardship, with little to eat much of the time.
When her three-year-old sister became chronically ill with malaria, her father was at the war front and her mother was ill, so Okonjo-Iweala carried the child on her back for three miles to the doctor’s surgery. Six hundred other people were waiting to see him. Undeterred, she pushed her way through the crowd, climbing through the window to see the doctor. “I knew if she didn’t get help she’d die,” says Okonjo-Iweala. The injection for malaria saved her sister’s life.
She has been fighting her way through difficult situations ever since. After the war ended, when she was 18, she went to the US to study economics at Harvard and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), began working for the World Bank, and married Ikemba, her childhood sweetheart, now a surgeon.
In 2000, when Olusegun Obasanjo came to power in Nigeria’s first democratic election, after the cruel dictator General Sani Abacha, he asked Okonjo-Iweala to write a brief for economic reform. The new president was so delighted with the result that he decided she should be his finance minister.
Cannily, he got her boss, World Bank president James Wolfensen, to pop the question. “It never crossed my mind to be finance minister,” she says. “Not because I don’t want to serve my country but because of my family. I didn’t want to miss any step of their growing up. And my youngest son was still in school. But I was persuaded this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I felt Nigeria didn’t have to succumb to the image of being a corrupt country; we didn’t have to let the economy stagnate.”
She says she’s sometimes asked how she can do her job with her children – one daughter and three sons – in a different country. “But people don’t understand that I don’t do this job in spite of my children. Rather, they are my inspiration. There’s so much love and energy from them, they make it possible for me.”
However, from the way she reiterates how much she relies on their love and support, she evidently not only misses her husband and children but feels guilty about their separation. When she was offered the job she discussed whether or not she should take it with her whole family, knowing that it would mean that she could only return to Washington for a few days every few months. “My husband is just the most amazing person. He is a true partner. He is so kind and loving, and he hardly ever complains. Not at all like me.” She roars with laughter.
But you sense that Okonjo-Iweala pays a dear price for her high-profile, highly paid job (she’s one of only two Nigerian ministers paid in dollars – around $240,000 (£137,000).)
When her eldest son Uzo was completing a book last year he went to stay with his mother in Abuja and was appalled at her “insane” schedule: “I had no idea what she was going through until I got there,” he says. “I’ve never been in a more stressful house. My mum is off to work at 6am, then she’s not back until after 11pm. And when she comes home she’s got nobody to help her unwind or people like me, who will stress her out in a different way, which is what she needs. Even on a Sunday the phones start ringing at 7am. You think, ‘What’s so urgent on Sunday?'”
Uzo says that staying with his mother helped her relax a little: “She could nit-pick about things that mothers do. Like why I hadn’t got my hair cut, what I’m doing with my life – that sort of thing. I think my mum being in Abuja has been very tough for my dad and my brother – and for her.
“But my mother is incredible. She’s a very, very strong person. I sometimes ask myself why does she do this job? But I never ask her. It’s apparent why she does it from the way she behaves. She’s dedicated to her country and she feels your existence isn’t just for you, it’s to help other people So I think we, her family, should support her 100%. After all, she gives 300% because she never feels she’s done all she needs to do.”
Okonjo-Iweala’s role as a wise parent also imbues her work. She likens the role of the west to that of parent and Nigeria as the child. “If your child has been doing bad things, like drug or alcohol abuse, 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?'”
And change, she feels, must begin at home. “We’ve got to get real; not just talk,” she says. “Africans have to start looking after themselves and working and trading with each other.”
One of only two women finance ministers in the world – the other is Luisa Diogo, who combines the post with being the prime minister of Mozambique – her fight to reform Nigeria’s economy has been helped, she claims, by her gender. “I think being a woman makes you able to deal with a lot of things – and still keep sane. There’s so much wrong with the economy and so much to do, you can see me any day in my office multi-tasking, dealing with five or six people, ranging from a state governor to a businessman.
“I also 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. When it comes to doing my job I keep my ego in my handbag.” And with that, Okonjo-Iweala leaves, walking down the hotel corridor to have her picture taken – carrying a large and impressive handbag.