Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: The Game Changer
“Sometimes, all you need is a symbol,” screams a celebratory ad showing an Ankara scarf without a face. The viral photo was created by a Nigerian graphics designer, Onuorah, one of the many Nigerians who cannot join the #BeLikeNgozi Challenge- a challenge started by the founder of Lifebank, Temie Giwa-Tubosun, to celebrate the appointment of her countrywoman as the director-general of the World Trade Organisation.
Dressed in African wax prints, known locally as ankara, many Nigerian women and young girls played dress up with circular rimmed glasses and headgear that mirrored the unmistakable style of the former Nigerian finance minister.
The rest who could not join were either writing glowing tributes that boasted of their “sister’s” elevated status or about “another Nigerian who is not a Nigerian Prince”.
Such was the joy the appointment of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala brought to an average Nigerian. Maybe there was dissension, but the overarching national mood was celebratory and on March 1, when she officially began her tenure as the boss of the trade organisation, the joy was at the fullest.
“I have been so excited about this. Someone told me it became a national project. There were no ethnic climes, no religion, everyone was on it. I can safely tell you that for the Nigerians who called, they were people from every ethnic group. I am very proud that it became a unifying force for Nigeria, and I think it is something we should be proud of. Hopefully, my performance will let people know Nigerians can get to the top and do well,” she says.
What is in a name?
Ngozi, a name peculiar to the Igbo tribe of Nigeria, means blessing. According to the African belief system, the name given to a child can shape a child’s future. Dr Okonjo-Iweala shares this sentiment but adds that timing is also important.
“That name is propitious. I think all of the above play a role: Timing, luck and divine intervention, but I think divine intervention above all (laughs). I have a great deal of faith because my life has shown me…so much has happened that if not for God’s will, I wouldn’t have gone out of some situations so divine intervention is very big for me.”
And timing means getting out of her comfort zone to get the job done at the right time so that it benefits not only her but everyone around her.
“My parents brought us up to believe that whatever we have, it is not just for you, it is for others. That was drummed into my head. For instance, if you get educated, it has to serve the greater good. It is a privilege and not a right. So, that really shaped my thinking: Service to others.”
First of seven children, Okonjo-Iweala spent part of her childhood in her idyllic village, learning the importance of serving humanity and humility from her grandmother until she was nine years old.
“Even within the family, I was always told you have to do this for your siblings to be served. Then in my community, even though we are from the royal family, my grandmother was very down to earth and would ensure that I would go to the stream to fetch water, go to the farm and by the time I was 9, I knew how to cook.”
This worldview was again strengthened after her jovial father, Chukwuka Okonjo, who was a brigadier in the Biafran Army and the head of the Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighters, sitting on one of the cement blocks that had become their chair, he told the then-15-year-old Ngozi, “you have everything.”
“I asked, ‘what do you mean?’ And he answered, ‘once you have a head on your shoulders, you have everything. Whatever material thing you lose, it doesn’t matter, you can recreate it. You can use your brains to find another opportunity.’ That taught me that it is not about riches. And if it includes serving other people, that makes it worthwhile.”
And when she became an adult serving for 25 years at the World Bank, nations began to enjoy the fruit of the seeds of service.
As Managing Director, she oversaw initiatives to assist low-income countries, raising about $50bn in 2010 from donors for the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s fund for the poorest countries. Besides this, she handled the $81 billion operational portfolios in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia.
Then in Nigeria, she served as the country’s finance minister in the Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan administrations, helping to secure Nigeria an $18 billion debt write-off in 2005. She was also the country’s foreign minister at a time, making her the first woman to hold both posts.
She is not the only one in her family whose impact has been felt. Born into a Royal family, her father served humanity as the Eze (King) of the Obahai Royal Family of Ogwashi-Ukwu. He was a renowned mathematician and a professor of economics, while her mother was a professor of sociology and a retired medical doctor.
Only a few days into her appointment as the new DG of the WTO, her sister, Dr Njideka Okonjo-Udochi became the first black woman to be named “Maryland’s family physician of the year” in USA while her son, Uzodinma Iweala, brought the world’s attention to the plight of African child soldiers with his award-winning novel titled “Beasts of No Nation” in 2005. This novel, which was originally written as a senior thesis, was adapted into a film in 2015.
What is in a head tie?
An inspiration to women around the world, Ngozi is more than just a name, it is an identity. And a part of that identity are the eyeglasses, the African wax print and the head tie. A mother with four growing children, she first developed her signature head tie out of the need to get her children ready for school and on time. While some who took part in the #BeLikeNgoziChallenge said it took them over 2 hours to get it done, she says that she developed and can tie it in two minutes. At all times, including her times in the university, she had a knack for wearing African prints, and as she got older, it stuck.
This transcended to her workplace where she had to face the hostility that comes with being female, a story she wrote in her newly released book with Julia Gillard, “Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons”. Like Hillary Clinton, Jacinda Ardern, Theresa May, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and many more personalities mentioned in the book, she found that as she got promoted in the managerial ranks, a woman’s appearance is always put up for scrutiny. “So it led me to think, ‘let me just develop a look that I can tie in two minutes because I am in a hurry and two, something nice and standard… look–which I am proud of—which depicts my country and also stops people from wondering what I am going to look like…. and it worked.”
To affirm this, Uzodinma Iweala, congratulating his mother on his Instagram page, wrote, “I’ve read a number of articles about her appointment that say, “Now the work begins!” This is true, but it’s also clear that such statements don’t take into account the insane amount of work that women (especially Black women) must do just to be considered for positions which they are clearly qualified for. It’s not just my mother!”
While many may consider it an uphill task, not her! As the first finance female minister of any African nation [and the first woman to serve in that office twice], her dedication which saw her work round the clock to ensure that the introduced policies helped Nigeria stay afloat is now what will help her stay on course in this new assignment.
She is passionate about the WTO and the global trading system and has as one of her focus, ensuring the improvement of the living standards of developing nations.
“I am very keen about women in trade, small and medium enterprises. How do we use the vehicle of trade and the WTO’s rules to help within a polity? You know, where people are falling behind those who are marginalised, inclusion; so that motivates me because I can see possibilities at the aggregate level of policy, globally, and also down to the individual.”
Another focus for her is the Nigerian economy. “What do I think that could buttress and help us move in the right direction with our economy? What can trade bring for us? How can it support the development of the Nigerian economy? If we are willing to do the right things; to open up, to allow us to benefit, I will try my very best so that the rules of the WTO would support.
“And there are other things such as Aid for Trade. How do we have the right trading environment? Can I bring some capacity-building and technical assistance to help us? Are there some small projects? How can the International Trade Centre come in? How can we help women entrepreneurs? But more importantly, how can we improve our trading regime, how can we trade more in Africa now that we have the Africa Continental Free Trade area? How can Nigeria, the largest market in Africa, benefit from this market? I’d be looking at that.”
A firm believer in providing solutions, she believes that the simple reason that you have a head on your shoulders means that if there is a blockage on the way, pivot immediately and explore other options; rather than stay stuck trying to fight it. Using the “head on your shoulders” should also guide you into asking yourself, “what can I do next that will also serve people while enhancing my career?”
And ready she is for the job that lies ahead.
To the many Ngozis around the globe, she encourages to dream big: “When you have big dreams about how to serve other people, it can really be exciting. But when you have dreams about how to advance yourself, it can be frustrating because you start dreaming small. And I want young people to know that once you have brains, you have flexibility.”