Africa: Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – Beyond Gender

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A returnee from United Arab Emirates’ (UAE’s) first historic interplanetary (Hope) mission which landed on planet Mars on February 9, 2021 reading the global print media coverage of the election of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the seventh Director General of World Trade Organization (WTO) would have rightly been misled to think that the unprecedented feat was a kind of affirmative global action which dramatically privileged a grandmother of dual passports, Nigerian and American. “Nigerians Rejoice as New WTO Head Becomes First Woman and African to Lead Global Trade Body” read some headlines.

The misleading and patronizing headlines would definitely and (easily too) mislead any casual reader of what was legitimately earned by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala through smart and hard work. The reportage of Ngozi’s victory had inadvertently triggered a variant of what I call “Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf media syndrome” which often manifests in the male dominated global media once a woman breaks the glass ceiling erected in the first place by men! Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 2011 Winner of Nobel Peace prize in recognition of her “efforts to bring women into the peacekeeping process”. In 2005, she won the historic Liberian presidential election to become the 24th President of Liberia.

The headlines then passed for some ecstasies and even hysteria: “The Iron-Lady takes charge in Liberia”, “Age of Women”, “Women are coming”, ad infinitum. Of course Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a woman, and of deep substance too. She is a proud mother of four children and some grandchildren. And of course she is truly the first female democratically elected President in Africa. But notwithstanding the importance of gender, the obsession with gender dimension of Johnson’s Presidency pointed to our readiness to undervalue the participation of women in governance and belittle their achievements made in spite of their gender.

In a continent in which it is easier to transfer power and wealth to male child (remember Eyadema’s Togo and Kabila’s Democratic Republic of Congo) than to a wife and female child, female presidency, understandably, might capture the gender imagination. But even at that narrow perspective, the point cannot be overemphasized: Ellen Sirleaf’s democratic victory was a product of her direct political engagement of trial and error spanning decades, political contestation and cooperation, political adversities in forms of vicious harassments, imprisonments, missed assassinations and forced exile, national commitment and international exposure rather than her maternal credentials.

Before she was declared the winner on November 23, 2005, as the candidate of Unity Party, there was an acrimonious run-off with a professional footballer George Weah who she defeated in 59% of the 40% vote counts. Just as it was a long road to victory for Hellen Johnson so it has been a challenging journey for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to the Executive chambers of WTO. Thus, other women and indeed men who are eager to follow their footsteps must realize that there is a long walk to victory. Dr Okonjo Iweala, brings to the table 40 years of struggle and persistence to succeed and excel even when it seems impossible until it’s done as Nelson Mandela puts it.

Her main strength is soft knowledge power. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a product of the best of public education, home and abroad. There was once a Nigeria of Queen’s School, Enugu, St, Anne Molete Ibadan, where Ngozi had her foundation education rudely interrupted by the civil war. She is a multiple degree holder from branded universities: Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981 where she bagged PhD in regional economics and development Economics.

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Her globally acknowledged huge human capital traits include intelligence, experience, skills, passion, values and commitment of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and not necessarily her gender. In 2012, she ran a controversial but audacious campaign for the presidency of the World Bank, insisting that the plumb job was almost by design reserved for Americans (Americans alone! IMF reserved mainly for Europeans) be made open to competition, the mantra of global market economy even when apartheid is the rule in the global institutions.

Two-term Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs under President Olusegun Obasanjo, she returned back from the World Bank again under President GoodLuck Jonathan to take up an expanded position as Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance. She was the de facto unofficial Prime Minister in a presidential order! As a student of Development with specialization on labour market, I once wondered why Madam Ngozi with serial appointments and elective offices (some dynastic appointments without a royal entitlement) would be over-employed in a continent in which the youths parade all the degrees, namely BA, BSC, PH.D but without the real thing – JOBS!

Her relative ease of labour market entry and labour market exit with tenacity of purpose still tasks imagination. When she left the Bank for Jonathan’s Cabinet, the then World Bank President Robert Zoellick had said in a statement that “her desire to serve her country is truly a big loss for the World Bank but a major gain for Nigeria as it works to craft its economic way forward,”.

Very few have so many referees with good jobs in waiting, jobs in deferment, jobs in bid! Madam Ngozi’s career path calls for a critical rethink of employment/unemployment theories for undergraduate students such that they can appreciate how to employ and over employ themselves with knowledge and smart moves to add value for the world. But not without amazing stories of adversities of frightening dimensions.

The “2020 African of the Year” told Africa Forbes magazine in November last year: “My mother was kidnapped and held for five days when I was Finance Minister. The Kidnappers thought that killing me would be too merciful and wanted to paralyze me for the rest of my life. When you are fighting powerful people who are corrupt, they fight back in very dangerous ways”.

Ngozi truly dared to make a change with all the attendant risks. But as I once asked when she ran for the Presidency of the World Bank, was it another legitimate job or an enduring vision to reform global institutions under whose watch the world has become more unequal with the rich getting richer with virtual means of transactions while the majority are sinking into poverty bottomless pits?

Like the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the original name of the World Bank) established in 1944, WTO hitherto General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), commenced in 1948, almost two decades before Nigeria and most African countries got independence. So what difference can African leadership of an organization formed in spite of Africa make? It’s gratifying listening to

Dr Ngozi, unfolding her vision on Tuesday, at the 2021 Lagos ‘Ehingbeti’ Economic Summit, said, “Majority of Africans are still exporting primary products like fossil fuels, minerals (diamonds, tin, copper) or agriculture products (cocoa and coffee). We have to get from a position of where we are exporting raw materials to a position where we are adding more value.”

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