Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on Monday, made history following her appointment as the latest Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
With the appointment, Okonjo-Iweala becomes the first woman and African to hold the position.
Who is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala?
Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala a global finance expert, is an economist and international development professional with over 30 years of experience working in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. Currently, Dr Okonjo-Iweala is Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation. Since its creation in 2000, Gavi has immunized 680 million children globally and saved ten million lives. She is also a Senior Adviser at Lazard and sits on the Boards of Standard Chartered PLC and Twitter Inc.
Previously, Okonjo-Iweala spent a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, scaling the ranks to the Number 2 position of Managing Director, Operations (2007–2011). She also served two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria (2003–2006, 2011–2015) under President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Goodluck Jonathan respectively.
Okonjo was the first woman to become Finance Minister of Nigeria, and first woman to serve in that office twice. In 2005, Euromoney named her global finance minister of the year.
Education and personal life
Okonjo-Iweala was born in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, Nigeria where her father Professor Chukwuka Okonjo was the Obi (King) from the Obahai Royal Family of Ogwashi-Ukwu.
Okonjo-Iweala was educated at Queen’s School, Enugu, St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan, and the International School Ibadan. She arrived in the US in 1973 as a teenager to study at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude with an AB in Economics in 1976. In 1981, she earned her PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a thesis titled Credit policy, rural financial markets, and Nigeria’s agricultural development. She received an international fellowship from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), that supported her doctoral studies.
She is married to Ikemba Iweala, a neurosurgeon. They have four children – one daughter, Onyinye Iweala (AB, MD, PhD, Harvard) and three sons, Uzodinma Iweala (AB, Harvard, MD, Columbia), Okechukwu Iweala (AB, Harvard) and Uchechi Iweala (AB, MD, MBA, Harvard).
During her campaign to become the next Director General of the WTO, it was revealed that Okonjo-Iweala became a US citizen in 2019 after spending several decades working and studying in there. Given the ongoing trade tensions between China and the US, analysts commented that the disclosure would be a contributing factor in shaping China’s attitude towards her.
Career in government
Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister and also as Minister of Foreign Affairs. She was the first female to hold both positions. During her first term as Minister of Finance under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Administration, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the wiping out of US$30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of US$18 billion. In 2003 she led efforts to improve Nigeria’s macroeconomic management including the implementation of an oil-price based fiscal rule where revenues accruing above a reference benchmark oil price were saved in a special account, “The Excess Crude Account” which helped to reduce macroeconomic volatility.
She also introduced the practice of publishing each state’s monthly financial allocation from the Federal Government of Nigeria in the newspapers. This action went a long way in increasing transparency in governance. With the support of the World Bank and the IMF to the Federal Government of Nigeria, she helped build 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), helping to curtail corruption in the process. As at 31 December 2014, the IPPIS platform had eliminated 62,893 ghost workers from the system and saved the Nigerian government about $1.25 billion in the process.
Okonjo-Iweala was also instrumental in helping Nigeria obtain its first ever sovereign credit rating (of BB minus) from Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s in 2006.
Following her first term as Minister of Finance, she returned to the World Bank as a Managing Director in December 2007.
In 2011, Okonjo-Iweala was re-appointed as Minister of Finance in Nigeria with the expanded portfolio of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy by President Goodluck Jonathan. Her legacy includes strengthening Nigeria’s public financial systems and stimulating the housing sector with the establishment of the Nigerian Mortgage Refinance Corporation (NMRC). She also empowered Nigeria’s women and youth with the Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria Programme (GWIN); a gender responsive budgeting system, and the highly acclaimed Youth Enterprise with Innovation programme (YouWIN); to support entrepreneurs, that created thousands of jobs.
This program has been evaluated by the World Bank as one of the most effective programmes of its kind globally. Under her leadership, the National Bureau of Statistics carried out a re-basing exercise of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP); the first in 24 years, which saw Nigeria emerge as the largest economy in Africa. She took a lot of heat for the fuel subsidy removal policy by the Nigerian government, an action that led to protests in January 2012. In May 2016, the new Nigerian administration eventually removed the fuel subsidy after it became apparent that it was unsustainable and inefficient.
In addition to her role in government, Okonjo-Iweala served on the Growth Commission (2006-2009), led by Nobel Prize winner Professor Michael Spence, and the United Nations’ Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (2012-2013). She also co-chaired the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation. In 2012, she was a candidate for President of the World Bank, running against Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim; if elected, she would have become the organization’s first female president.
Career after government
After leaving government, Okonjo-Iweala was also 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). Since 2014, she has been co-chairing the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate, with Nicholas Stern and Paul Polman. In January 2016, she was appointed the Chair-elect of the Board of Gavi.
Okonjo-Iweala is the founder of Nigeria’s first indigenous opinion-research organization, NOI-Polls. She also founded the Center for the Study of Economies of Africa (C-SEA), a development research think tank based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital and is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development and the Brookings Institution.
Since 2019, Okonjo-Iweala has been part of UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education, chaired by Sahle-Work Zewde. Also since 2019, she has also been serving on the High-Level Council on Leadership & Management for Development of the Aspen Management Partnership for Health (AMP Health). In 2020, the International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva appointed her to an external advisory group to provide input on policy challenges. Also in 2020, she was appointed by the African Union (AU) as special envoy to solicit international support to help the continent deal with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In June 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria nominated Okonjo-Iweala as the country’s candidate to be director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). She later advanced to the election’s final round, eventually competing with Yoo Myung-hee. Ahead of the vote, she received the backing of the European Union for her candidacy. In October 2020, the United States government indicated that it would not back Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy.
The WTO in its formal report said Okonjo-Iweala “clearly carried the largest support by Members in the final round; and, enjoyed broad support from Members from all levels of development and from all geographic regions and has done so throughout the process” On 5 February 2021, Yoo Myung-hee announced her withdrawal from the race, in “close consultation with the United States”. According to a statement issued from the United States Trade Representative, which says “The United States takes note of today’s decision by the Republic of Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee to withdraw her candidacy for Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The he Biden-Harris Administration is pleased to express its strong support for the candidacy of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director General of the WTO”.
In early 2021, Okonjo-Iweala was appointed as co-chair – alongside Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Lawrence Summers – of the High Level Independent Panel (HLIP) on financing the global commons for pandemic preparedness and response, which had been established by the G20.
Okonjo-Iweala has received numerous recognition and awards.