Forward Thinkers // 10.15.2010

The "Trouble Woman"

Article by Aba H

Maintaining a professional and family life can make many women feel like performers trying to skilfully balance on a rope. Nowadays many women are now bravely taking on the two worlds and are managing to do extremely well in both.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was the first female finance minister in Nigeria from July 2003 to June 2006 and was Foreign Minister of Nigeria from June to August 2006. To date she has been one of the world’s three female Finance Ministers. She was called the world’s hero by Time magazine, proclaimed as a ‘brilliant reformer’ by Gordon Brown and in 2006 was numbered 62 on Forbes ‘100 Most Powerful Women’ list.

Closed Door, Open Window

Sacking corrupt ministers and officials, reducing the country’s oversized civil service and coming down hard on internet scams required Okonjo-Iweala to pull out her boxing gloves; but a fighter’s spirit wasn’t new to her. She was born to professors in economics and sociology and was only 14 when the Biafran war broke out. Her family suffered great loss. While Okonjo-Iweala’s father fought in the war and her mother was unwell, she had to carry her three-year-old sister who was severely ill with malaria, three miles to a doctor.  They were met by a crowd of six hundred patients already waiting for the doctor. Okonjo-Iweala’s fighting nature saved her sister’s life when she forced her way through the crowd to climb through the doctor’s window for a consultation.

Her headstrong nature remained with her from as she left Nigeria at the age of 18 to study in the US, until her current position as the Managing Director of the World Bank to which she was appointed in 2007.

The ‘Trouble Woman’

A trained economist from Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Okonjo-Iweala left a 21 career and her position at the World Bank as the Vice President and Corporate Secretary to serve her country, Nigeria-the second most corrupt country in the world after Bangladesh. Her primary goal was to stop the squandering of Nigeria’s oil wealth worth billions of dollars by a small elite and to re-direct it into health care and education for the country’s 137 million people.

She was able to achieve for the Nigerian economy in three years what many African countries have achieved only stagnantly since their independences. Between 2003 and 2006  Okonjo-Iwealawas at the forefront macro-economic transformation in the West African country where the economic growth rate tripled at 6 percent per annum.  About how she dealt with the rich and powerful who might not have agreed with her mission and tried to undercut her she said “When I became finance minister they called me Okonjo-Wahala – or ‘Trouble Woman’.” She went on to explain “It means ‘I give you hell.’ But I don’t care what names they call me. I’m a fighter. I’m very focused on what I’m doing, and relentless in what I want to achieve, almost to a fault. If you get in my way, you get kicked.”

With that attitude and fortitude it’s no wonder this woman has left her mark on the world. More of her achievements while in office included leading negotiations to reduce Nigeria’s indebtedness from $35 to $5 billion and initiating the publishing of each state’s budget in the federal papers thereby encouraging accountability. Okonjo-Iweala headed privatizing the telecommunication industry and cracked down on corruption making Nigeria a more attractive destination for foreign investment.

Okonjo-Iweala resigned from office in August 2006 when removed as head of the Economic Intelligence team by President Obasanjo. Undeterred,this driven woman is now the Managing Director of the World Bank as appointed by Robert Zoellick in 2007.

Nearest and Dearest

Pursuing a high-profile and demanding career at the expense of being with her family was a difficult decision Okonjo-Iweala made. She often felt the sting of guilt for leaving her family in Washington to serve her country. According to this ambitious woman being finance minister wasn’t something she had thought about, “I didn’t want to miss any step of their growing up” she said about leaving her four children- three sons and one daughter- who have been her inspiration. Her childhood sweetheart husband – Ikemba, now a surgeon- whom she describes as “the most amazing person” and “a true partner” has been her support.

The Heart of It All

Although based outside Nigeria for much of her life Okonjo-Iweala’s loyalty to her country wavered not. Her love for Nigeria and being part of the country coming into its own as a leader in Africa made the long work hours worthwhile. She admits that being a female helped her get her job done. She said “When it comes to doing my job I keep my ego in my handbag.”

4 Responses to “The "Trouble Woman"”

  1. Ritah says:

    This article is truly inspiring for all women out there. First time i am hearing of this Mme Ngozi. Her determination to make a difference in a chaotic economy ruled by corruption is a true inspiration. I personally mind what people think of me,but of recent, i realise that its impossible to please everyone and at the same time bring about change. I am greatly inspired by this article.

    Thank you.

    • Abena A-T says:

      We’re glad you were inspired by Mrs. Iweala and that you’ve realized this truth, that it’s impossible and unnecessary to please everyone. you’re welcome and thanks for the feedback.

  2. Nanasei says:

    great story.

  3. Mokete says:

    This is a great article. A truly inspiring story of a woman committed to the well-being of her country and people. This serves as a reminder of our own duty to play a role whether inside or outside the continent to make Africa and her children prosperous and at peace. At to this we toil to see her truly free.

    Thanks for the article.

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