Africa

Nigeria's finance boss Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in profile

  • 11 April 2012
  • From the section Africa

The meteoric rise of Nigeria's powerful Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala - one of three candidates to be World Bank president - reflects the trajectory of her country's history.

Just as the former British colony has transformed itself into a dynamo for growth on the African continent since independence, the 57-year-old's life has changed markedly from humble beginnings.

Many consider the former village girl a perfect fit for the position of president of the World Bank, an organisation of 184 member states that lends $57bn (£35.9bn) a year to developing nations.

The Harvard-educated economist was a well-respected managing director there for years after serving as Nigeria's first female finance minister.

As a key figure in President Olusegun Obasanjo's cabinet between 2003-06, she organised an $18bn debt write-off for her country, cracked down on corruption and helped Nigeria obtain its first ever sovereign debt rating.

She returned last year with an enhanced portfolio, after close friends convinced her to help sort out the many economic problems and imbalances hindering the country.

Since she entered the race to lead the World Bank, her picture has adorned front pages worldwide.

After several hours' delay as her crucial weekly meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan and other senior politicians overran, I met Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for our interview in her office, and congratulated her on her new celebrity status.

World Bank presidential nominee Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria leaves after an interview at the World Bank headquarters building in Washington 9 April 2012
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala estimates her outfits cost as little as $25

"What celebrity status?" she replied, grinning, dressed in her trademark combination of matching headgear, necklace, earrings and printed cotton dress.

She had chosen to dazzle all she met in bright red and black, soon to be part of a fashion label, I suggested.

"Don't be silly. I already have one," she joked about the style of outfits she said she adopted during the rush before the school run as an easy answer to a smart look.

The finance minister estimated the set she was wearing cost around $25. Something even Kate Middleton would be proud of.

After she had finished speaking to one of her four children living in the United States on a dedicated line reserved for family, I asked what happened when her childhood, which she had described as happy and magical and full of ballet lessons and piano classes, was punctured by the Biafran war.

"Life really went backwards. My parents lost everything, all their savings, because we had to run from the Nigerian side to the Biafran side. We were Igbos," she said.

War childhood

Her father, a renowned professor, was a brigadier in the Biafran forces and for many years the family lived a life of war.

"We had one meal a day. We sometimes had to sleep on the floor, in a bunker, different places. One really saw what it meant to suffer hardship. I saw children dying around me," she recounted.

She then revealed how she almost died when she left the military camp she was staying at, against her mother's advice, to travel three miles to visit family.

When she arrived at her cousin's house, there was suddenly an air raid.

"They didn't have a bunker so we ran outside and threw ourselves down on the ground. A young man threw himself next to me and got a bullet. He didn't die, but I think if he hadn't been next to me, I would've gotten it," she revealed.

She said those war experiences have taught her a lot.

"I can take hardship. I can sleep on the cold floor anytime. I can also sleep on a feather bed," she said, laughing out loud.

Clearly versatile and a self-confessed fighter, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala defended her political record in Nigeria with vigour.

In January, she had been taken to task by many Nigerians angry at her part in the government's unpopular removal of an $8bn subsidy on fuel.

The move led to mass protests across the country as many impoverished Nigerians had regarded it as their only benefit from the nation's oil wealth.

One Nigerian journalist said the orthodox economist had become an "anti-people person".

'Nobody is indispensable'

She responded that her work wiping out $18bn of the country's debts had opened the door to large investments and created room for growth in the Nigerian economy.

But she admitted there is still plenty to do.

"Now the issue is can you build on that? That's what this administration is focusing on: Job creation, inclusive growth," she stated.

But, as arguably the most competent and experienced economic mind of President Jonathan's administration, could that happen without her?

"Nobody is indispensable," she answered. "If the African leadership want me to [lead the World Bank] and they think this would be good for the continent and my country, and the president is willing, then I will look at it, because it's an honour," she added.

One Nigerian businessman echoed the view of many I have spoken to when he told me it would be a bittersweet victory for the country to lose someone of her stature.

As we were leaving Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala's spacious, marble-floored office, with her mesmerising collection of red carpets surrounded by potted plants, a large Nigerian flag and hundreds of neatly organised textbooks and folders, she joked with us that she had already won in a way.

Stunned by the support she had received, from former World Bank employees and eminent publications like the Economist and Financial Times, she said the whole process had helped Nigeria's credibility hugely, whatever the outcome.

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites