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KOKO Women’s Day Special: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Raising The Bar For African Women

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Two weeks ago, the announcement of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation was considered one of the best news Nigerians and Africans could have ever heard. The appointment of this phenomenal Economist and Harvard alumni was certainly the good news many needed to cheer them up from the craziness and funk the world has been in for the past few months.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will be the first woman and above all the first African to hold such a high position. For many, seeing her earn this position was more than just a bragging right but it was a reminder of the ‘Can Do’ spirit of the African woman. Her attaining this position is another motivation the African woman needs for her to rise up and aspire to win. She raised the bar for African women to see themselves as more and also believe that they are more.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala assumes office as WTO DG
Everyone across various works of life recognized her achievement from world leaders to billionaires, economists and the many giants in the financial world. The internet was proud of her achievement as the internet began the #BeLikeNgoziChallenge, which saw people, especially women dressing in Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s signature garb of gele, traditional blouse, and beaded neckpieces. Let’s take a little ride into the world, life, and journey of this phenomenal African woman, wife, mother and motivation.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was born on the 13th of June, 1954 to Professors Chukwuka and Kamene Okonjo, both of the University of Ibadan. She hails from Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, and her father is the Obi from the Obahai Royal family of Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State. She had primary and secondary education at Queen’s School, Enugu, St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan and International School, Ibadan. When her three-year-old sister became chronically ill with malaria, her father was at the war front and her mother was ill. The brave 14-year-old Ngozi carried the child on her back for three miles to the doctor for whom six hundred other people were waiting to see.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and her parents
Undeterred, she pushed her way through the crowd, climbing through the window to see the doctor and the injection for malaria saved her sister’s life.
She left Nigeria as a teenager in 1973 after the war to the United States to study Economics at Harvard University where she graduated with AB magna cum laude honours in 1977. She went further to hold a PhD in Regional Economics and Development from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1981. Looking at her educational background, you can tell that Okonjo-Iweala has always been a smart, intelligent, and knowledgeable young woman.
Okonjo-Iweala began her career path as an intern in World Bank Group and returned after her PhD graduation to work for 25 years, beginning from Development Economist and eventually rising to the positions of Corporate Secretary and then Vice President, overseeing an $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. Following her role as Vice President, she was appointed as Nigeria’s Finance Minister under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration in 2003 – the very first woman to hold the position. She had been asked to write a brief for economic reform by Olusegun Obasanjo when he came to power in Nigeria’s first democratic election, after the cruel dictator General Sani Abacha, and he was so delighted by the result he appointed her as his minister.
“Our Only Limit Is Your Mind… Let It Fly Free”, Genevieve Nnaji On Okonjo-Iweala Becoming New DG of WTO
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s impact was felt during this appointment as she and her team carried out notable projects including building an electronic financial management platform for the government, the implementation of home-grown economic reforms that secured Nigeria macro-economic stability and contributed to a tripling of the economic growth rate. In 2006, she served as the Foreign Affairs Minister under the same administration serving two months, yet again, the first woman to hold that position. Okonjo-Iweala returned the World Bank Group in 2007, this time as the Managing Director, leading several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during food and financial crises.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala again became a needed asset to the Nigerian Government as she was re-appointed as Finance Minister during President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, becoming the first woman to serve in that office twice and the only Finance Minister to have served under two different presidents. This new appointment came with an expanded portfolio of the Coordinating Minister of the Economy. In 2015, she joined Lazard, a financial advisory and asset management firm where she served as a Senior Advisor till 2019. She is Co-Chair of The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. She also sits on the Boards of Standard Chartered PLC and Twitter Inc. She was Chair of the Board of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance (2016 – 2020) and of the African Risk Capacity, ARC (2014 – 2020). Dr Okonjo-Iweala was recently appointed as AU COVID-19 Special Envoy (Finance) and WHO COVID-19 Special Envoy (ACT-Accelerator). She was/is a member and ex-officio of many other boards and organisations.
All of these feats did not go unnoticed – In 2004, Time magazine named her one of the world’s heroes; In May, 2005, Gordon Brown hailed her as a brilliant reformer. Same year, Euromoney named her the Global Finance Minister of the year, In 2011, she was recognised by the UK Guardian as one of the Top 100 Women in the World. In 2014, she was recognised by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People. In 2015, Okonjo-Iweala was named by Fortune magazine as one of the 50 Greatest World Leaders and by Forbes for five consecutive years as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in the world. In 2019, she was named one of Transparency International’s 8 Female Anti-Corruption Fighters Who Inspire. Dr Okonjo-Iweala was named Forbes African of the Year 2020, the Minister of the Decade, People’s Choice Award 2020 by Nigeria’s This Day newspaper. She also received the International Service Award of the World Affairs Councils of America 2020 as well as the Aminu Kano Award for Leadership 2020.She has also received numerous honours, including 16 Honorary Doctorates from Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, Tel Aviv University, Trinity College, Dublin and others. She is an Angelopoulos Global Public Leader at Harvard University Kennedy School and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2019, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became a US citizen after spending several decades working and studying there.
Read also: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: 5 Nigerians Holding Prestigious Positions In International Organisations
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is not only a leader by appointments or honour, she is also an author, having written several articles and books including The Debt Trap in Nigeria co-ed with Charles Soludo and Mansour Muhtar in 2003, Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria, published in 2012, Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines in 2018 and Women and Leadership – Real Lives, Real Lessons co-authored with Julia Gillard in 2020 Looking at her career and feats so far, you can only applaud such a strong and amazing woman. She spearheaded several achievements while handling these different positions and has work ethics that is worthy of emulation.Ngozi Okonjo
In all of these, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a wife and has been married to Dr. Ikemba Iweala, her childhood sweetheart and a family medicine physician and surgeon from Umuahia, Abia State, Nigeria. Together, they are proud parents of 4 children – 3 males and an only daughter, all of whom are graduates of her alma-mater, Harvard University.
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In a 2005 interview with The Guardian, she revealed that when she was offered the job, she would discuss whether or not she should take it with her whole family, knowing that it would mean that she could only return to Washington for a few days every few months. he says she’s sometimes asked how she can do her job with her children – one daughter and three sons – in a different country. “But people don’t understand that I don’t do this job in spite of my children. Rather, they are my inspiration. There’s so much love and energy from them, they make it possible for me. My husband is just the most amazing person. He is a true partner. He is so kind and loving, and he hardly ever complains. Not at all like me”, she said.
Becoming the DG of the WTO is not far-fetched as she certainly earned this position. With a great track record of success across various appointments, she has been built for this sort of role and responsibility over the years and without an iota of doubt, we are certain that her wealth of knowledge, the experience will come in handy on this new role.
In a recent interview with Arise TV, Okonjo-Iweala shared that her role and performance as the DG will open doors and inspire several African women to lead international organizations.
Read also: Girl Child Education, Still A Necessity For National Development
“I am proud for Africa, I am proud to be Nigerian and I am proud for women but the bottom line is the capability to do the job and to deliver so that after me, there will be women, there will be other Africans, that is the whole point. Multilateral economic organizations need to have women. I have actually just published a book with the former Prime Minister of Australia about leadership talking about the fact that there is a dearth of women at the top even though a lot of progress has been made but it is too slow. This is an opportunity to have a woman leading a multilateral organization”, she said. That it is! – the door opener and inspirer of the African woman!
This woman has changed the narrative and raised the bar for African women across the world. We are proud of this amazon and are super excited for the next generation of young girls who will find strength and inspiration in her. We hope they stand tall through all of the hurdles, sexualisms and many other things that come their way and rise to their very top. For this, here is an important recipe from the global Ngozi-Okonjo-Iweala…
Read also: WTO: My Performance Will Open Doors For Africans And Women – Okonjo-Iweala
“I think being a woman makes you able to deal with a lot of things – and still keep sane. There’s so much wrong with the economy and so much to do, you can see me any day in my office multi-tasking, dealing with five or six people, ranging from a state governor to a businessman. I also think women have less ego. If someone’s saying things to make me feel bad, I don’t care as long as I get the job done. When it comes to doing my job I keep my ego in my handbag”.
World Trade Organisation’s first female and African DG, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Photos Credit: Getty

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