‘Don’t stand in my way!’ says WTO’s Okonjo-Iweala

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has taken office as the new director-general of the World Trade Organisation. Will this feisty Nigerian succeed in galvanising the moribund organisation? asks Anver Versi.

Opinion by

Image : Eric Baradat/AFP

“She is going to rock the place!” promised Christine Lagarde, currently president of the European Central Bank and formerly the managing director of the IMF. She was responding to a question on the impact the new director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala would have on the institution.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at her home in Potomac, Maryland, near Washington DC. Photo: AFP / Eric Baradat

Lagarde, who has interacted with Okonjo-Iweala on various issues and platforms over a long period and who is regarded as an excellent judge of character, said: “She is this wonderful, soft, very gentle woman with an authentic approach to problems but, boy, under that soft glove there is a hard hand and a strong will behind it.” 

This is as perfect a description of the phenomenon called Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as can be made. Over the years, as editor of African Business and African Banker magazines, I have had the opportunity of meeting her on a few occasions.

She always came across as somebody that is totally unaffected by her high positions – whether as managing director of the World Bank or as the minister of finance (twice) of Africa’s biggest economy, Nigeria. She was always gracious, had a ready smile and despite all the hustle and bustle that always surrounded her, was razor-sharp on the activity at hand – even if this was nothing more than exchanging pleasantries with a journalist like myself.

People in her position are often expected to make speeches at whatever event they grace – and Okonjo-Iweala has been in constant demand by organisations big and small across the world for decades. Usually, the dignitaries stick to a well-worked formula aimed at making sure no one is displeased but saying little else. When Okonjo-Iweala spoke however, no matter how briefly, you listened and remembered.

Whenever you came across her, whether in smaller gatherings or large international conferences, there was never any doubt that you were in the presence of a formidable intellect. It was this intellect and the steely determination she had already exhibited from childhood that delivered a magna cum laude (highest distinction) graduation from Harvard University in 1976, and later, her doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981.

Tough beginnings

But her early life was anything but easy. Although her father, Professor Chukwuka Okonjo, was the Obi (king) of Ogwashi-Ukwu in Delta State, Ngozi found herself having to take care of her siblings from a young age. Both her parents were studying in Europe and the children were being brought up by their grandmother, a strict disciplinarian who believed in self-sufficiency. 

This was also a fraught period in Nigeria’s history, and the Biafran civil war later wreaked havoc across many parts of the country. After her father’s return to Nigeria as a lecturer, he was recruited as a brigadier in the Biafran army and the family had to be constantly on the move.

“I was eating one meal a day and children were dying,” she told Forbes magazine in an interview last year. “So, I learned to live very frugally. I often say I can sleep on a mud floor as well as a feathered bed and be very comfortable. It has made me someone who can do without things in life because of what we went through.” 

According to the Guardian newspaper of London, during these difficult days, her three-year-old sister had become dangerously ill with malaria. She carried her for three miles to the doctor’s surgery, wriggled her way through a big crowd of patients and had to climb through a window to reach the doctor, who was able to save her sister’s life in the nick of time.

First brush with economics

Okonjo-Iweala was educated at Queen’s School, Enugu, St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan, and the International School Ibadan before leaving for the US and Harvard University. 

For someone who is regarded as perhaps the most polished economist in Africa and in the very top drawer worldwide, Ngozi’s first brush with economics nearly brought her to tears.

She recalled, in an earlier interview with Forbes, an occasion when in order to stop the young Ngozi pestering him, her father, who was a mathematical economist, handed her a book to read while he concentrated on working on his paper. 

Although Ngozi was an avid reader, devouring books by the sackful, the book was about economics and it bored her so much she resolved never to go near economics again. Even her stint at Harvard should not have happened as her godmother was very keen for her to go to Cambridge. She passed the entrance exams for both institutions but followed her mother to the US to take up a teaching post and ended up not only at Harvard but studying economics – but only because she could not do geography as a core subject!

Once she had come to terms with economics, she fell in love with it. She says: “Economics was really something that explained the world to me. It captured the common sense of the way the world works with analytics and the dynamics of development, which have intrigued and concerned me all my life.”

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (L) is congratulated by her sister, Dr Njideka Udochi, upon receiving confirmation of her appointment as DG of the WTO. Photo: AFP / Eric Baradat

Rise to prominence

She was to spend 25 years delving into all facets of economics as they played out at national and international levels, working at the World Bank. Her common-sense approach as well as eye for detail saw her rising rapidly to become managing director, the second-highest position in the institution.

While she did not exactly rock the World Bank, she nevertheless shook it from time to time, ensuring that development issues were not being swept under the carpet or dealt with in a cursory manner, as had been the case previously. Colleagues say she also inspired other Africans at the bank to raise difficult questions instead of faithfully toeing the orthodox line as they had been wont to.

It was when she was invited to become Nigeria’s minister of finance by President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003 that she began shaking things with considerable force. Despite high oil prices, Nigeria’s economy was being strangled by a growing debt burden, owed mostly to the Paris Club of Western nations.

Okonjo-Iweala’s negotiations with the Paris Club are now considered a classic in the art. She persuaded the Paris Club to write off most of the debt, including the outright cancellation of $18bn. One of her World Bank colleagues, David de Ferranti, is on record as saying: “The way she brought about the debt deal was incredible. Very few people could have done that.”

With the need for frugality and discipline instilled in her since childhood, Okonjo-Iweala set about housekeeping duties at the Finance Ministry, putting in policies to stabilise the country’s volatile microeconomic environment. She insisted on all states publishing their financial statements each month, introduced electronic management systems to curb corruption and improve transparency, and obtained the country’s first-ever sovereign credit rating from Fitch.

Her battle to force through reforms earned the nickname Okonjo-Wahala (Okonjo the Trouble Woman), but she was undaunted. 

“I don’t care what names they call me,” she told the Guardian in 2005. “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 also took on the Foreign Ministry portfolio for a few months at the end of her first term.

Uncompromising campaigner

Her second stint as minister of finance was during the President Goodluck Jonathan administration (2011–2015). She had very clear ideas about how to raise living standards for ordinary people, by establishing mortgage refinancing arrangements, creating enterprise-oriented organisations for women and youth, which generated hundreds of thousands of jobs, and she worked with the national statistics department to re-base GDP calculations, with the result that Nigerians woke up one day to learn that their country, and not South Africa, had the biggest economy on the continent.

But what really marked her second stint as finance minister was her uncompromising campaign to end the oil-subsidy scandal that was costing the country billions of dollars every month. She guillotined the subsidy (only a small proportion of which went to ordinary vehicle owners) but this set off a storm of protests.

However, the government, lacking her iron will, bowed to the pressure and the ban was lifted – although it was reintroduced in 2016 by the new administration. 

During this time, Okonjo-Iweala was subjected to death threats and her mother was kidnapped in a bid to force her to revoke the ban. But she did not take a backward step and would have felt left down when the rest of the administration caved in. When the kidnappers realised they could not bully her into changing her policies, they released her mother unharmed.

Shaker-up in chief

Although Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was the overwhelming favourite to be appointed (by consensus) as the new director-general of the WTO, the US’s then president, Donald Trump, predictably threw a spanner in the works, refusing to support her candidature and instead, backing the Korean nominee, Yoo Myung-hee

When Trump was ignominiously shown the door at the White House following his election defeat, Yoo Myung-hee, perhaps after a quiet word with Joe Biden, withdrew her candidature, thus confirming Okonjo-Iweala as the new DG of the organisation – to the obvious and pointed relief of the staff at the WTO.  

What can Okonjo-Iweala achieve at the WTO? Will her being the first woman and first African (and in fact, the first American as she has a dual nationality) to hold this position affect what she does?

There is no doubt that the WTO, which was formed in 1995 to regulate international trade, serve as a forum for negotiations, arbitrate trade conflicts and monitor the implementation of trade agreements, has been in a bad way for quite some time. 

Regional trading blocs, such as the EU and ASEAN, have acquired greater importance, while the often open flouting of international rules, including intellectual property, by China and others has gone unpunished. Donald Trump’s hostility to global bodies such as the UN and WHO extended to the WTO, which he worked relentlessly to hollow out and make irrelevant.

But it is also clear that in the current climate of looming trade wars, rising nationalism and protectionism, and the unchecked reach and power of mega corporations such as Facebook and Google, a strong WTO is needed more than ever. 

It needs shaking up from top to bottom and who better to do so than Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – the Trouble Woman who does not take a backward step?

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