Two powerful women: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Liberia and Nigeria are very different but there is one important exception:  in both countries a woman plays a key role in national politics. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president,  does not need any introduction to the regular readers of this blog, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala might – but I would not be surprised if her fame is also known to many readers. From 2003 to 2006, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was Finance Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister of Nigeria, the first woman to hold these positions.
With over 150 million inhabitants, Nigeria is Africa’s largest and potentially most powerful country. The federal republic of Nigeria consists of 36 states – some people say 36 ‘mini-republics’ – and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. When in 1999 – after nearly 33 years of military rule – democratic elections were held these were won by a former general and president, Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007). In 2003 Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed Minister of Finance and Economy and Head of the Presidential Economic Team responsible for implementing a home grown economic reform program – NEEDS, National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy – that stabilized the economy, improved the country’s financial stability and tripled the growth rate to a yearly 6% (2003-2006). Her major achievement, however, was the successful negotiation with fifteen countries united in the Paris Club to which Nigeria owed over US $ 30 billion. Nigeria repaid US $12 billion and the 15 creditor countries cancelled US $18 billion. It was the biggest debt cancellation ever made, barring the one with Iraq in 2004.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is an Igbo, from Delta State, and of royal descent. Her father, Professor Chukuka Okonjo, is the Obi, or King, from the Umu Obi Obahai Royal family of Ogwashi-Ukwu. She was educated at Harvard University – like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – graduating magna cum laude in 1977, and earned her Ph.D. in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technlogy (MIT). Prior to her appointment as Nigeria’s Finance Minister she had a 21-year career as development economist at the World Bank – an employer she shares with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – and in 2006 she returned to her former employer. When World Bank Director Paul Wolfowitz had to quit the institution, she was even considered as a possible replacement. In 2007, she was appointed as Managing Director at the World Bank by Wolfowitz’s successor, Robert Zoellick.

A very recent evaluation of the 2005 debt deal between the Paris Club and Nigeria concludes that the decision to relieve Nigeria’s debt was justified – a remarkable conclusion given the widespread criticism of the agreement. Its critics pointed at the high oil revenues worth billions of US dollars, Nigeria’s notorious reputation as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, and the mismanagement of the public sector. The evaluation report provides ample argumentation for this positive and surprising conclusion.
The second, and in view of the future, most important conclusion is that Nigeria’s economic and financial position has improved since 2005, in part thanks to the debt relief agreement. Nigeria’s current economic position is much better than before the agreement. This is an important achievement since one of Nigeria’s ambitions is to belong to the world’s top twenty economies by the year 2020, elaborated in ‘Vision 2020’. Already Nigeria is the second biggest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa!

Like Okonjo-Iweala, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf struck an important deal erasing the external debt of Africa’s oldest republic, a staggering US $4 billion, an insupportable burden for this small West African country of just over 3 million people. It would be interesting to have this debt cancellation evaluated too. After all, the tax payers in the developed creditor countries are footing the bill, one way or the other. Notwithstanding the foregoing, however, the evaluators of Nigeria’s debt deal concluded that the creditor countries have also benefited from the deal.
In April of this year Goodluck Jonathan was elected in his own right as Nigeria’s new president. On May 6 he was sworn in as the country’s 14th and current president. Subsequently it was announced that madame Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is to become President Jonathan’s new Minister of Finance.  Though not yet confirmed when publishing the present post, Nigerian newspapers already reported on the Senate screening of ministerial candidates and the confirmation of Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination.

She again faces an enormous challenge: to contribute to the realization of the Vision 20:2020 agenda of the Federal Government. I have no doubt Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will again play a key role in the national politics of Africa’s biggest country. Her close relations with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also a former Minister of Finance and who rose to the highest position in her country, may be inspiring. Certainly we will hear a lot more about her. As an appetizer, see this entertaining and interesting November 2010 Africare Interview with the two most powerful women in West Africa, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Be sure to put on a full screen!

Africa Interview: President Sirleaf, Dr. Darius Mans and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala

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