The mother in Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

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I was in an office at the Ministry of Finance one afternoon when a fine looking young gentleman walked in. Although he greeted nicely, I didn’t quite notice him initially, having been consumed in a report I was reading for a meeting I was to begin.

However, his accent and the kind of discussion he was having with Paul Nwabuikwu, my host, not only drew my attention but also suggested that he may be living or have lived in America. Possibly, I thought to myself, he may have a link with the coordinating minister for the economy and minister of finance, Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala.

“How is Dad taking all this pressure on her at this time,” Paul asked the gentleman, who in turn replied, “Oh it’s not been easy for the entire family but we are happy she is coping well,” as they continued their conversation on what brought him to the ministry.

“By the way,” Paul told the gentleman as he turned towards me, meet Onyinye Nwachukwu, she is a Senior Correspondent with BusinessDay… this is Uchechi, the Coordinating Minister’s baby even though he is now a big boy.”

But as we exchanged pleasantries and chatted briefly, I noticed the young man’s composure and high sense of humility which aroused my curiosity, quite unlike me.

“He is such a humble boy and sounds quite intelligent,” I chipped in as soon as he left. “That’s how all his siblings are. In fact, you need to meet them. They are all Harvard-trained, hard working and well mannered. You can’t tell their level of success at first contact, except you are told. That’s how Madam has been able to bring up her children,” Paul said, as we continued our little gossip.

But as I sat there listening, I was pondering in my heart how blessed and successful this woman – the coordinating minister has been – professionally and yet doing incredibly well at the home front.

And of course, this level of success, hard work and principles have earned her respect, awards and recognition, both locally and internationally, most recently being her emergence as the 81 “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,” in a survey conducted by Forbes.

Okonjo-Iweala, 58, is not a new name in Nigeria, Africa and in fact globally. She is the current minister of finance and the coordinating minister for the economy, a special name President Goodluck Jonathan coined out for her position immediately she resumed office, for the second time.

She had some 25 years career at the World Bank where she rose through the ranks to become a Managing Director of the global bank, a position she left to take up the ministerial appointment. Since her return as the Minister of Finance, she has strived to push and maintain fiscal prudence by government which unfortunately, has attracted so many critics and haters to her.

The Wikipedia describes her as a “globally renowned Nigerian economist best known for her two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria and for her work at the World Bank, including several years as one of its Managing Directors.”

It would be recalled that the Coordinating Minister for the Economy aspired to become the Group President of the World Bank – her stiff context for the post recently is still quite fresh. Although she lost to the US nominee, Jim Yong Kim due to high level politics and intrigues, she was widely acclaimed to have been most qualified for the top job.

Corroborating this, Forbes said, “When Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala left the World Bank in 2011, where she was a managing director and the second-in-command, to become the finance minister of Nigeria, eyebrows were raised. So, it was no surprise that she was on the short-list of candidates when the organisation conducted an international search for a new leader this April. The top spot went to President Obama’s pick Jim Yong Kim, but many say Okonjo-Iweala was by far the most qualified candidate.

“One of her outstanding achievements in Nigeria is that in October 2005, she led the Nigerian team that struck a deal with the Paris Club, a group of bilateral creditors, to pay a portion of Nigeria’s external debt ($12bn) in return for an $18 billion debt write-off.

She was also instrumental in helping Nigeria obtain its first ever sovereign credit rating (of BB-) from Fitch and Standard & Poor’s, among other achievements.

For the second time, Okonjo-Iweala was named recently by Forbes as one of the “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,” in a survey. She was named the 81 in the list which had just three African women. Last year, she was 97.

Interestingly, Okonjo-Iweala still does not yet see herself as powerful even though she acknowledges her level of success she attributes to hard work, God’s help and favour.

“The issue is that I do not feel powerful at all. I just think of the day to day work that I have to accomplish and of the big things that lie ahead which we have not yet accomplished,” she told me.

Coincidentally, Forbes’ recognition came in the midst of the crisis between the Federal Government and oil marketers that caused intense fuel scarcity in Abuja and its environs- the Coordinating minister was always leading negotiations to resolve the issue though she would not compromise standards.

For her, the Forbes’ award came at the right time. “I think that it is good that it came in the middle of this marketing thing because that is all I have been thinking about- day in day out. So it is good to have a break through this news. I was 97 before, now 81, through God’s grace something seems to be happening.”

In the Forbes list which was dominated by women from the United States, Okonjo-Iweala was listed among Joyce Banda, President of Malawi (71) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s President (82).

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor topped the list and she was closely followed by the US Secretary of States Hilary Clinton with 59 other Americans, which among others included Melinda Gates (4), Michelle Obama (7), Oprah Winfrey (11), Christiane Amanpour (53); In a brief on the Coordinating Minister, Forbes said, “This is her second stint in the ministry of finance – from 2003 to 2006 she served Nigeria under President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose administration was known for liberalising the Nigerian economy, building close ties with the US and closer ties with prominent Nigerian businessmen. Okonjo-Iweala’s main achievement was to secure a debt write-off of $18 billion from Nigeria’s creditors.”

Other women of power on the list were President of Brazil, Dilma Roosseff (3), Sonia Gandhi, president, National Congress Party of India (6), MD, International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde (8), Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, President of Argentina (16), Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (19), Queen Elizabeth II of the UK (26), Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia (27), Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand (30,) and Sri Mulvani Indrawati, MD, World Bank (72).

More importantly, Okonjo-Iweala sees her nomination by Forbes as a good development for the country and Africa as a whole.
“It makes me feel good, of course. I thank God, I should not really claim the credit, all thanks and glory to God that this is happening and I think it is good for the country and for the continent and I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to have been pronounced in such a way,” she said as we chatted.

As I sought to find out those peculiar features, principles, achievements that could have driven her level of success and attracted accolades to her, Okonjo-Iweala responded, “I think really capturing a life time of my career where with God’s help I have worked really hard over the years and I was not doing things thinking that I am seeking to be the most powerful anything, or I am seeking to be this but I think that working consistently, believing in certain principles and sticking to them, rising in the job all helped.

“And I think that when people see the achievements that you have been privileged to make, like here, obviously, one of the key things is that with the support of Mr president we have been able to turn the macroeconomic environment around, things that have enabled Nigeria to be upgraded by Fitch and Standard and Poor’s in terms of the credit rating when others were being downgraded.”

“That is one thing. Then managing to put the fiscal balance in place so that they see how we have been reducing domestic borrowing, recurrent, increasing capital, steadying the macroeconomic environment, saving more, doing all the things that make the Nigerian economy a little more steady and stronger, I think those things stand out. We may all be sitting down here in Nigeria not knowing that people notice them,” she added.
Continuing, she noted, “Those are some of those concrete things on the ground that make the country look better that make people say okay, may be this woman is doing something important and you know I had a whole career at the World Bank for 25 years where I rose to the number two position which is not an easy thing by any stretch of the imagination.

She strongly believes that all those things combined account for this achievement. “But once you do not set out saying I am going to do this to be this, then God just does it,” she added.

But whether the coordinating minister sees this recognition as some sort of motivation, hear her; “Yes, it is some of motivation but to be honest, the biggest motivation to me is when I see something changing. When I was the Managing Director at the World Bank and I would go out and see a project and a programme that we had supported change the lives of the people; that make me so happy.

“Coming to Nigeria, when we see the economy becoming steady and giving us a chance to focus on say agriculture, creating jobs for people or the power sector making the lives of Nigerians a little bit better, though we still have long way to go, but we are striving. Those are the things that give me satisfaction. You know when you see change happening in front of you, it is motivational – not withstanding the other atmospherics.”

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