Okonjo-Iweala, World Bank presidency bid

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WITH Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s  formal entry into the race for the presidency of the World Bank, Nigeria has put its hat in the ring of international, high stakes diplomacy.

Latest reports indicate she is one of three candidates vying for the job. One of them is Dr. Jim  Yong Kim, a South Korea-born,  naturalised American and President Barack Obama’s nominee. Kim, who is  President (Vice-Chancellor) of Darthmouth College, New Hampshire, is a medical doctor and reputed as a global expert on health matters. The third is  Jose Antonio Ocampo, former finance minister of Colombia in South America and currently a professor at Columbia University in New York.

Of the three, Dr Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s  Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, is so eminently qualified for the job that ordinarily she should be the candidate to beat. In Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria and the endorsing regional and continental blocs – ECOWAS and the African Union, AU – have a formidable candidate who is saleable to the world. Her credentials, both academic and professional experience, are intimidating enough.

She attended America’s two most prestigious Ivy League universities – Harvard University where she graduated, magna cum laude, with a bachelors degree in 1977 and later earned a doctorate degree in regional economics and development from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT.

She started working at the World Bank, a development finance institution,  in 1984 and have logged over 20 years with the bank. So, it is case of a round peg in a round hole – she constitutes a meeting point between academic learning in development finance and practical experience in development finance. A candidate can hardly come better prepared for a position, as is at stake at the World Bank.

She has traversed all strategic divisions of the bank, serving in various capacities, rising to the position of  Vice-President and Corporate Secretary  before her appointment as Finance Minister by the Obasanjo administration in July 2003 during which period she was largely instrumental in securing debt relief for Nigeria from its creditors in the Paris Club.

That when she resigned her position as Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister in August 2006, and returned to the bank, she was appointed to the position of Managing Director of the bank, is an eloquent testimony that she is considered a valuable asset. Now that  she is vying for the top job, it remains to be seen whether the World Bank leadership will stand firm on the commendatory positions  it had given the Nigerian minister.

Her work, both at the World Bank and as Nigeria’s Finance Minister during her first coming, had not gone unnoticed, thus earning her recognitions.

Among such recognitions, she was Euromoney Magazine Global  Finance Minister of the Year 2005; Financial Times The Banker’s African Finance Minister 2005; while she is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, an elite, world class, Washington D.C – based  think tank, and a member of the Advisory Boards of Global Financial Integrity and World Resources Institute.

However, being eminently qualified as the Nigerian minister is, international positions such as at stake  with the World Bank  require a lot of diplomatic outreach and recall of IOUs.

Contesting the  position of  World Bank president is particularly a big challenge  because it has traditionally been held by an American nominated by the US President, while that of the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, IMF, had been ceded to Europeans, an example of Euro-American hegemony over the world. But recent clamour for openness and democratisation of these positions in the quest for fairness in the international system brought about challenge for Christine Lagarde, the French minister who succeeded her kinsman at the IMF as managing director.

It will be recalled that the French had to engage in global diplomatic offensive in pushing her candidacy for the job. There was no complacency.  Nigeria, ECOWAS and AU  must take a cue from this. Happily, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has shown savvy in mobilising Africa with her outings with the continent’s finance ministers in Addis Ababa and the ECOWAS leadership in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire at the just concluded emergency summit of the regional bloc. No doubt,  President Obama would want to lean on many countries to support his nominee.

It is, however, obvious that given his medical credentials, virologist Dr. Kim is a more appropriate fit for Director-General of the World Health Organisation, WHO, for which he had even worked as a director. The World Bank’s core mandate is project finance in developing countries, and dabbling into health  was a shift in focus, which some even see as a derailment when there is a WHO, a trend that needs to be reversed.

The World Bank deals mainly with developing countries and the case must be made, and strongly too, that it is time for the developing world to be at its helm. The American media are already being mobilised to promote Kim’s candidacy. The Washington Post had written a promotional editorial titled, “Jim Yong Kim, the right choice for the World Bank”.

But it turned out a tepid endorsement with a subtle acknowledgement that he faces serious challenge from Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala. The Washington Post even conceded that Kim’s nomination was “a departure from the World Bank’s previous presidents … who have been bankers, politicians or, like Mr. Zoellick, technocrats who have previously served in government”.

More telling was the editorial’s rather plaintive note  that “those who would reject an American nominee ought to consider whether the United States should be entirely excluded from leadership roles in international organisations … as Americans are ruled out in competitions for head of the International Monetary Fund and Secretary General of the United Nations”.

This is a major climb-down from the usual American brashness. But ultimately, international politics is about the power behind a candidate, not necessarily the fitness.

So, Nigeria must mobilize prominent public endorsements of her candidate.  Nigeria and Africa must go into this contest not with a defeatist, under-dog mentality but with the confidence of having a pre-eminently qualified candidate. It is instructive that the Washington Post editorial only made reference to Dr. Okonjo-Iweala while there was no mention, at all,  of the Colombian candidate, Prof. Jose Antonio Ocampo. It had  noted : “The U.S. nominee may still face challengers from other nations; three African governments are backing Nigeria’s Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala”.

In the intensive and extensive diplomacy necessary to push the Nigerian minister’s candidacy, given the short time frame to the April 21 date when the Board takes its decision, some basic moves might be worth considering.

These include mobilising Nigerian and African missions abroad to sell Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s  candidacy to their host governments and people, a reach-out to significant American institutions and public opinion leaders, particularly the US Congress and America’s  elite media, with a view to mobilising American public opinion to provide a soft landing for President Obama and Dr. Kim when the American bid fails – that the best candidate won.

Of course, charity must begin at home. The Nigerian media must also be mobilised with information to offer positive perspective in their reporting and opinion articles on the Okonjo-Iweala challenge. The competition will monitor the local press. A discordant, negative  tone by Nigeria’s media,  based on ignorance, can do tremendous damage.

Also, enlisting China, the World Bank’s third largest shareholder, which is trying to gain a foothold in Africa will provide impetus. This contest is shaping up as an historic battle, since a World Bank presidency by Dr. Okonjo-Iweala  could accelerate the pace of reform/democratisation in the UN System where, for instance, monopoly of the veto power had remained the exclusive right of a few countries.

Nigeria must deploy aggressive diplomacy in support of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s bid for the World Bank Presidency. With Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s impeccable credentials, while the battle will be tough, the prospects of a WIN, based on merit, are very bright.

History beckons on Nigeria, the AU and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

Mr. BISI OLAWUNMI, a lecturer,  wrote from Bowen Varsity, Iwo, Osun State.


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