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Nigeria's Trouble Woman

Posted by By Ann McFerran on 2005/08/10 | Views: 571 |

Nigeria's Trouble Woman

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.

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,’’ chuckles the 51-year-old. “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 ... 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: a total shake-up of the country ranked the second-most corrupt, after Ban-gladesh. Her goal: to ensure that more of its oil money ($50-billion last year), rather than being squandered by a tiny elite, goes towards providing clean water, schools and healthcare for its 137-million population, most of whom survive on a dollar a day.

Transforming the oil-rich nation that is home to one in five Africans 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; reduced Nigeria’s bloated civil service; and cracked down on scams that persuade the unsuspecting to part with their savings. 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, British Finance Minister Gordon Brown hailed her as “a brilliant reformer’’.

Okonjo-Iweala is diminutive, warm, charismatic, dynamic — and exhausted. “I must be a masochist,’’ she wails. “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?’’

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”.

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 chose to keep her at home. The family lost everything and experienced considerable hardship.

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 for almost 4km to the doctor’s surgery. About 600 other people were waiting to see him. She pushed 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 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began working for the World Bank, and married Ikemba, her childhood sweetheart.

In 2000, when Olusegun Obasanjo came to power in Nigeria’s first democratic election, after the dictator General Sani Abacha, he asked Okonjo-Iweala to write a brief for economic reform. Obasanjo was so delighted with the result that he decided she should be his finance minister.

“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. But I was persuaded this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

She says she’s sometimes asked how she can do her job with her children 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.’’

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 — about $240 000.)

Last year her eldest son Uzo went to stay with his mother in Abuja and was appalled at her schedule: “I had no idea what she was going through until I got there,’’ he says. “My mum is off to work at 6am, then she’s not back until after 11pm. Even on a Sunday the phones start ringing at 7am. But my mother is incredible. She’s a very, very strong person ...’’

Okonjo-Iweala’s role as a parent imbues her work. She likens the role of the West to that of parent and Nigeria as a 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 can’t change?’’’

And change, she feels, must begin at home. “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 is also 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 ... 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 — carrying a large and impressive handbag. — © Guardian Newspapers 2005

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