100. Iron Lady brings rich experience to Ramaphosa Panel

Author: Prof. Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 23 March 2020
Publication: Business Day
Image courtesy of: International Monetary Fund (photographer uncredited) – IMF 

Nigeria’s formidable first female finance minister (2003-2006; and 2011-2015), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was recently confirmed as a member of president Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic advisory council. She served as Managing Director of the World Bank – its second most powerful position – between 2007 and 2011. She thus brings tremendous national and multilateral experience, a formidable intellect, and an extensive network onto the Council.

Okonjo-Iweala also brings star power: Forbes named her among the ten most influential women in the world in 2011, while Foreign Policy listed her among the top 100 global thinkers in the same year. She published the 2013, Reforming the Unreformable, on her first stint as Nigeria’s finance minister and architect of Nigeria’s $30 billion debt deal, when she led a team of reformers to tackle corruption and rebuild government institutions.

Nicknamed Okonjo-“Wahala” (Troublemaker) by Nigeria’s lively press, the “Iron Lady” is   competent and courageous, with a strong sense of public service. The 65-year-old technocrat’s impressive economic credentials are from the prestigious Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she had obtained her doctorate.

Okonjo-Iweala grew up in a solidly middle-class Nigerian family with both parents being professors. The Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970 forced her family to move back east, having lost all their savings.  Her father was recruited into the Biafran army. Living on one meal a day, watching children dying, and sleeping on the floor of a bunker, were formative experiences that made Okonjo-Iweala determined to succeed, and perhaps also contributed to her three-decade exile in graduate school and at the World Bank in Washington D.C.

Okonjo-Iweala’s seven years as Nigerian finance minister and 25 years at the World Bank gave her a formidable network: she dealt directly with a wide range of leaders, finance misters, and technocrats from powerful Western countries, Asia, the global South, and multilateral institutions. With so much of South Africa’s current economic debates focused on tackling the country’s large debt of $177 billion (though mostly domestic), and whether Tshwane will be forced to borrow from the IMF, Okonjo-Iweala’s rich experience will be indispensable.

But, she also has some blind spots. Her team of economic reformers in Nigeria did not consult enough with cabinet members, civil society, and the civil service. She sometimes lumped all opponents of reform together, blurring the line between opportunistic vested interests and genuine intellectual opposition. The views of African economists and think-tanks are often absent from her analysis, and there is disproportionate faith placed in Western scholars and institutions.

For all her undoubted brilliance, her criticisms of the World Bank and IMF’s devastating Structural Adjustment Programmes on African guinea-pigs from the 1980s, are often extremely muted. She sometimes comes across as an ideological proselytiser for World Bank doctrines of growth, “good governance”, property rights, and private enterprise. Her economic orthodoxy and obsession with economic growth has earned her many enemies on the intellectual left. As Nigeria’s finance minister, she did, however, act more pragmatically, not hesitating to promote state intervention when she thought it the right course to take.

Though a competent economist, Okonjo-Iweala can sometimes come across as politically naive. As finance minister, she was widely blamed for the bungled effort to eliminate oil subsidies in Nigeria in 2004 and 2012. She underestimated the widespread anger of Nigerians towards a corrupt political class that was not trusted to spend any surpluses resulting from removing oil subsidies in the public interest.

Despite these limitations, Okonjo-Iweala’s welcome appointment could help bridge the differences in the strained Nigeria/South Africa relationship which has been scarred by recent xenophobic attacks on Nigerian businesses. She could further help promote mutual understanding, and heal the rift between Abuja and South African companies like MTN which have faced several regulatory challenges in Nigeria. 

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.