Rock Star in a Hard Place
Nigeria's high-flying finance minister built Africa's biggest economy. But can she survive her country's turbulent domestic politics?
On Sunday, April 6, an astonishing thing happened in Nigeria. Within the span of a single press conference, the country's economy practically doubled, from $292 billion to $510 billion. Nothing had actually changed, of course. No jobs were created. No one was lifted out of poverty. But as a result of a series of statistical revisions that moved the "base" year for the government's data forward 20 years, the true size and diversity of the Nigerian economy was suddenly revealed. Its surging telecom, film, and banking industries -- industries that barely existed in 1990, when the last "rebasing" exercise was undertaken -- miraculously appeared on the ledger. Without so much as making a widget, Nigeria whisked past South Africa to become Africa's largest economy.
Less than a week later, Nigeria's high-powered finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was back in her old digs in Washington, D.C., for the World Bank's annual spring meeting. With the help of a handful of aides whose cell phones never stopped ringing, she was running a makeshift war room out of the Nigeria country director's office, speed-dating investors and reporters in between rendezvous with bigger fish, like International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Having spent more than two decades as an economist at the World Bank, and having nearly beaten Kim out for the top job in 2012, she was clearly in her element.
"You just missed an investor who is thinking of investing in Nigeria," she said as we sat down at a round mahogany table overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. Okonjo-Iweala, 59, was wearing a bright green head-wrap and matching cotton dress, the traditional garb of Nigeria's Igbo ethnic group. "Blumberg Grain," she said, adjusting her wire-rim glasses, "$250 million investment." A communications maestro who has managed to turn the international media -- and the financial press, in particular -- into a chorus of cheerleaders, Okonjo-Iweala was doing what she does best: selling Nigeria. "The private sector, internal and external, is very excited about this," she said of the new economic data. "It just makes them more determined to come in."
On Sunday, April 6, an astonishing thing happened in Nigeria. Within the span of a single press conference, the country’s economy practically doubled, from $292 billion to $510 billion. Nothing had actually changed, of course. No jobs were created. No one was lifted out of poverty. But as a result of a series of statistical revisions that moved the "base" year for the government’s data forward 20 years, the true size and diversity of the Nigerian economy was suddenly revealed. Its surging telecom, film, and banking industries — industries that barely existed in 1990, when the last "rebasing" exercise was undertaken — miraculously appeared on the ledger. Without so much as making a widget, Nigeria whisked past South Africa to become Africa’s largest economy.
Less than a week later, Nigeria’s high-powered finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was back in her old digs in Washington, D.C., for the World Bank’s annual spring meeting. With the help of a handful of aides whose cell phones never stopped ringing, she was running a makeshift war room out of the Nigeria country director’s office, speed-dating investors and reporters in between rendezvous with bigger fish, like International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Having spent more than two decades as an economist at the World Bank, and having nearly beaten Kim out for the top job in 2012, she was clearly in her element.
"You just missed an investor who is thinking of investing in Nigeria," she said as we sat down at a round mahogany table overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue. Okonjo-Iweala, 59, was wearing a bright green head-wrap and matching cotton dress, the traditional garb of Nigeria’s Igbo ethnic group. "Blumberg Grain," she said, adjusting her wire-rim glasses, "$250 million investment." A communications maestro who has managed to turn the international media — and the financial press, in particular — into a chorus of cheerleaders, Okonjo-Iweala was doing what she does best: selling Nigeria. "The private sector, internal and external, is very excited about this," she said of the new economic data. "It just makes them more determined to come in."
With the possible exception of the two presidents she has served, Okonjo-Iweala has done more to shape Nigeria’s economic success story than any other individual. And more than any other non-head of state in Africa, she has come to personify the ideal of hard-nosed reform. When she first took office in 2003, four years after Nigeria’s transition to civilian rule, the country was still an economic basket case, complete with rampant corruption, crushing external debt, high inflation, and population growth that outpaced GDP expansion. By the time she resigned in frustration three years later, the country’s debt profile had been dramatically improved, inflation had dipped, and the economy was growing faster than 6 percent per year, aided in part by high oil prices. Corruption was still a thorn in the government’s side, but bullish investors were just pricing it into their decisions — and pouring into the country like never before.
Okonjo-Iweala’s second stint as finance minister, this time with an expanded portfolio that includes the duties of the planning minister for the economy, has been less dazzling than her first. Reappointed in 2011 — after a five-year hiatus spent as a managing director at the World Bank — the items on her to-do list are both more difficult and less popular. Yet under her stewardship, Nigeria’s star has continued to rise. The revised nominal growth estimates for the last three years are extraordinary: 17, 13 and 12 percent for 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively, with the rebased economic data.
Skeptics warn against reading too much into the impressive GDP numbers — both new and old. The recent rebasing exercise, after all, serves as a powerful reminder that government statistics can be misleading. "If you’re off by 50 percent for the size of the economy, then your growth rates are not worth very much," said Canadian economist Morten Jerven, whose 2013 book, Poor Numbers, details the abysmal quality of development statistics across Africa. The new data may be "overestimating the value-added from some sectors and double-counting some parts of the economy," he said. The output from the manufacturing sector, for example, may include inputs from other sectors that have not been subtracted from the total. John Campbell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 the 2007, put it this way: "We have absolutely no idea how fast the economy was growing."
But official numbers — regardless of their reliability — are powerful, and Okonjo-Iweala has used them to craft a convincing narrative about Nigeria’s rise. During her tenure, the country of 170 million people has seen its status as an investment destination soar, with emerging-markets gurus like Ruchir Sharma and Mark Mobius singling it out as one of the world’s hottest frontier markets. At home, however, Okonjo-Iweala is facing an increasingly skeptical populace that has seen few, if any, of the benefits of the investor feeding frenzy. The disconnect is so profound that the finance minister herself has highlighted the problem of "people not believing in economic figures." In a 2013 speech, she said it was her job "to make you believe that the work that [President Goodluck Jonathan] and the reform team is doing … is there and the economic figures show it." So unevenly distributed are the fruits of Okonjo-Iweala’s labor that the public doesn’t even believe they exist.
Western elites, by and large, have proved much le
ss skeptical than Nigerians. In Washington and Brussels, Okonjo-Iweala enjoys near-rock-star status. In fact, rock stars seem to gravitate toward her: "I couldn’t be prouder to work for her," U2 frontman Bono wrote recently of the finance minister’s involvement with ONE, a global advocacy organization he co-founded. Bob Geldof, who rose to fame with the Boomtown Rats and later organized Live Aid, a charity concert that raised more than $200 million for famine relief in Africa, is another member of Team Ngozi, promoting her various initiatives and appearing alongside her at press conferences. Okonjo-Iweala is a regular at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and a pair of TED talks she gave in 2007 have together been viewed more than 800,000 times online. She has some 153,000 followers on Twitter — more than twice as many as Goodluck Jonathan, the president she serves.
The international media, meanwhile, has fallen over itself to smother her in accolades — perhaps because she is so accessible and perhaps because it wants to believe she is really a development champion. "What the media is doing is it’s looking for stars. It’s a cruder form of the search for champions," said Campbell. "Beyond that, she has a winning personality, she’s pleasant to talk to, she’s very articulate, and so her adoption by the Western media was pretty easy for them to do."
And adopt her they have: She has been named to Time‘s list of the 100 most influential people, Forbes‘s list of the world’s most powerful women, and Foreign Policy‘s Top 100 Global Thinkers ("for showing Africa how to break the resource curse"). The Economist, never one to blithely make comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, has dubbed her Nigeria’s "iron lady."
When I asked about her friendliness with the Western media, she explained that it was born of necessity. "Nigeria is suffering from perception problems, so that pushes me to talk," she said. "Nigeria is not well reported at all, so you have to keep pushing. Otherwise you are going around as finance minister … you are doing these reforms, and nobody even knows they are going on." In an era of scaled-back foreign reporting, she said, even the most respected outlets are dropping the ball: "I want this known: There is a big failure of media in Africa. I want it to be the title [of your article]. The international media is failing in Africa. They are not getting the news."
Lately, the news has made the finance minister’s job especially difficult. A host of long-simmering troubles seem to be coming home to roost at the exact moment when Nigeria is supposed to be making its debut as an economic power. While Nigeria hosted the World Economic Forum on Africa from May 7 to 9, for example, the world was transfixed instead by the kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that is waging a bloody insurgency against the federal government. A series of recent, high-profile corruption scandals, meanwhile, has cast a further pall over Nigeria’s coming-out party. And presidential and National Assembly elections, scheduled for February 2015, are already beginning to churn the domestic political environment into a toxic scrum that few experts think Okonjo-Iweala’s reform agenda can survive.
"There is a lot of concern from both foreign investors and locals over the political machinations in the lead-up to elections," said Chris Becker, the chief Africa strategist at the Johannesburg-based market consultancy ETM Analytics. Jonathan has reshuffled his cabinet more than once, sacked the country’s internationally respected Central Bank governor, and replaced his top military brass. According to Sharma, the head of emerging-markets equity and global macro at Morgan Stanley, the coming months "could hold some serious speed bumps for Nigeria, because there is still a lot that needs to be done … and we think [the reform] agenda is on hold."
The increasingly polarized climate of election season does not advantage the cosmopolitan finance minister. International star power doesn’t count for much in the messy world of Nigerian politics, and as an outsider, Okonjo-Iweala has seemed ill at ease navigating its murky but all important patronage networks. "She was extremely effective in dealing with the world she came from: the international financial institutions," said Campbell. "That’s very different than being effective within a particular political context."
Many investors are still broadly positive on Nigeria, but the initial wave of excitement about Africa’s most populous nation has clearly crested and begun to recede. Okonjo-Iweala’s job is to fight against that tide. As the full scale of Nigeria’s internal woes is laid bare, however, she is increasingly at risk of being left with no clothes. "There is an illusory quality to the success she has achieved," said one international development professional who asked not to be named. "In a way, the hype over the Nigerian economy mirrors the hype about Ngozi. Both are based on very little substance."
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Emphatic, warm, and prone to the kind of small talk that greases über-conferences attended by the jet-set elite, Okonjo-Iweala exudes an optimized blend of stateliness and conviviality. She speaks English with a strong Nigerian accent, her voice a lilting staccato punctuated with bouts of abdominal laughter, and name-drops with aplomb. ("I was with the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, just two nights ago in New York," she told me.) After our interview but before parting ways, she asked me about the well-being of Foreign Policy‘s former top editor, Moisés Naím, reiterated how much she likes the magazine, and thanked me not once, but twice, for honoring her as one of our Top 100 Global Thinkers. "She looks cuddly, like she could be somebody’s grandmother," said a source close to the finance minister, who asked not to be named. "But she is really, really tough. She takes no prisoners."
In the hyperpolarized world of Nigerian politics, this take-no-prisoners approach has resulted in an often combative relationship with the press. Unlike the international media, which has largely smiled on the finance minister, the local press has been less than charitable, going as far as hurling charges of corruption and ethnic favoritism in her direction. "In Nigeria, practically every politician has been accused of corruption," said Sola Tayo, a Nigeria expert at Chatham House in Britain. "So it doesn’t mean much."
Still, Okonjo-Iweala has often expressed frustration about the way the press has treated her. Last December, after several local media outlets questioned her response to allegations that the state oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, had failed to repatriate as much as $20 billion in revenues, she lashed out through a spokesman, decrying the "campaign of falsehoods and distortions." In April 2013, she reportedly went over the vice president’s head to have a spokesman of Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency sacked over an article he published alleging ethnic favoritism and other shady dealings in the Finance Ministry.
Okonjo-Iweala insisted to me that she doesn’t pay much attention to the media. But sources close to the finance minister tell a different story. "She is very aware of what is written about her, and even more sensitive about the bad press that Nigeria gets," said a source who has known her for many years. She also puts considerable thought into her strategy for dealing with the press. According to Vera Songwe, who advised Okonjo-Iweala during her most recent stint at the World Bank, her media savvy is widely admired in official circles in Abuja. "A lot of the government looks to her for what the [media] strategy should be," she said. In any given situation, she is determining when "we should talk, [when] we shouldn’t talk."
And for good reason. Despite her rocky relationship with the Nigerian press, Okonjo-Iweala has proved a phenomenal spokeswoman for her country. "She knows what to talk about, the kinds of things the West absolutely loves: poverty eradication, women’s rights, education for girls," said Tayo. "They love this, and they love her accessibility." Todd Moss, chief operating officer of the Washington-based Center for Global Development, who has worked closely with Okonjo-Iweala over the years, put it this way: "She can talk to nerdy researchers and turn around and give a TED talk. There are not a lot of people like that."
Part of the reason, of course, that Okonjo-Iweala is so comfortable with Western, educated elites is that she is one. She speaks their language, shares their same general worldview, and is a product of the same prestigious institutions. Among her classmates at Harvard University, for example, were future Microsoft president and CEO Steve Ballmer, future Morgan Stanley co-president Zoe Cruz, and a dropout named Bill Gates. Tunde Asaju, who sits on the editorial board of the Abuja Daily Trust, put it to me a touch uncharitably: "There is a saying in Nigeria that the house rat is not beautiful except to its mother. As a former World Bank employee and international player, this applies to the finance minister." Campbell, the former ambassador, was more diplomatic: "In many respects, she is very American."
Born in 1954 in Ogwashi-Uku, a southern Nigerian town which in the local Igbo dialect means "palace of the great king," Okonjo-Iweala enjoyed what she has described as a "magical and happy childhood." Her father, a professor of economics, was also an obi, or traditional ruler of the Igbos, the third largest of Nigeria’s 250 or so distinct ethnic groups. Her mother was a professor of sociology. Okonjo-Iweala attended one of the best primary schools in the region, where she studied piano and ballet. She reportedly learned English reading books by Enid Blyton and Robert Louis Stevenson.
By the mid-1960s, however, the backdrop to this idyllic childhood was crashing in around it. Nigeria had won its independence from Britain in 1960, when she was 6 years old, but the brief period of national optimism that accompanied this milestone quickly gave way to opportunism and intense ethnic rivalry. A coup and countercoup in 1966 set off a series of anti-Igbo pogroms, and in 1967, the southeastern portion of the country seceded as the independent state of Biafra. The bloody, three-year war that ensued turned Okonjo-Iweala’s world upside down. Her father joined the Biafran insurgency, and as a young teenager she found herself working as a cook on the front lines.
"I did not go to school, my family lost all its possessions, and we learned to live on one meal a day," she recalled in a 2011 interview with the Financial Times. It was during this time that Okonjo-Iweala famously carried her malaria-stricken sister six miles on her back to a makeshift clinic, narrowly saving her sister’s life. The war eventually claimed more than 1 million lives, mostly because of starvation and disease, and ended in Biafran defeat. "I have lasting memories of children dying around me," she told the IMF periodical Finance and Development.
Three years after the end of hostilities, however, Okonjo-Iweala was enrolled at Harvard, where she graduated, magna cum laude, in 1977. She went on to complete a Ph.D. in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 1982, she joined the Young Professionals Program at the World Bank, where she worked for the next 21 years, rising to become a vice president. Bookended as it was between two chapters of relative privilege in her life, the Biafran War thus amounted to a paradoxical period for Okonjo-Iweala: It was only in extremis that her day-to-day experience even remotely mirrored that of ordinary Nigerians. This lack of shared experience still dogs the finance minister today. As Asaju put it in an email, "she is not really touched by the sufferings of the hoi polloi."
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Okonjo-Iweala’s first stint as finance minister very nearly ended as soon as it began. Courted to the post by President Olusegun Obasanjo, the former military ruler who midwifed Nigeria’s transition to civilian rule in 1999, the former World Bank vice president believed she was joining an administration that was serious about undertaking difficult economic reforms. But in July 2003, immediately after being sworn in, she learned that the president would be removing a major piece of her portfolio: The Budget Office, critical for controlling the purse strings and linking budget priorities to broader financial management reforms, would be relocated from the Finance Ministry to the president’s own office. "Removing the Budget Office," she later wrote in Reforming the Unreformable, her 2012 memoir about her time in the Obasanjo administration, "was akin to ripping the heart from the chest."
Okonjo-Iweala was stunned. Not only had the president effectively squashed the reform agenda before it had been launched, but he hadn’t even bothered to consult her before doing so. There was only one conclusion to be drawn: Her services would no longer be needed. So the newly minted finance minister drafted a letter of resignation and presented it to Obasanjo, who flung it back in a fit of rage and said she was free to go. Only later did she learn that the president’s antics were meant to be interpreted in a different light. Okonjo-Iweala, her colleagues explained to her, was expected to apologize and withdraw her resignation. But as would soon be apparent, playing politics, much less complying with their unwritten codes of conduct, was not the finance minister’s style
The following day, it was Obasanjo who backed down, agreeing to keep the Budget Office within the Finance Ministry and allowing its head to report jointly to himself and Okonjo-Iweala. She had won an early and decisive victory, though it was clear that powerful forces were aligned against the reform agenda.
Even after the showdown over the Budget Office, many inside and outside Nigeria doubted that Okonjo-Iweala would have much success in breaking down the old kleptocratic order. In a classified U.S. Embassy cable dated Aug. 7, 2003, Dawn Liberi, mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Nigeria, noted that government insiders thought the finance minister and several other economic advisors "will likely not last long because they are seen by many in the Cabinet as outsiders." Obasanjo, according to the mission director, was "seeking international credibility with these new appointments but will likely let his new appointees flounder as soon as they have met their public relations usefulness."
In the case of Okonjo-Iweala, this turned out to be a very premature assessment. Over the next three years, her economic team would manage to spearhead a series of structural, fiscal, and governance reforms that dramatically altered the world’s view of Nigeria and set the stage for its dramatic rise among African economies. Okonjo-Iweala instituted an oil-price-based fiscal rule that significantly reduced the volatility of government spending — and of the non-oil economy by extension — and she deregulated the telecommunications and power sectors, among others. She also set about privatizing state-owned enterprises and reforming the civil service, reportedly eliminating thousands of fraudulent "ghost" employees in the process. A well-publicized anti-corruption crusade — albeit one that did not ultimately accomplish much — paved the way for the defining achievement of her first term: the settlement of Nigeria’s $30 billion debt to Paris Club creditors.
Nearly three decades of profligate military rule had left Nigeria drowning in external debt. When Okonjo-Iweala first set out to negotiate a settlement 2003, however, G-8 finance ministers reportedly went out of their way to avoid her. She quickly got them to change their tune, however, by linking her requests for debt relief to pledges to carry out internal reform. "She brought tremendous credibility to Nigeria’s negotiating position," said Jendayi Frazer, who as a special assistant to U.S. President George W. Bush worked closely with Okonjo-Iweala on debt negotiations and later served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "Part of building that credibility was that she said that she’s not asking for debt cancellation until Nigeria undertook certain reforms."
The strategy paid off. After nearly two years of negotiations, the finance minister reached a historic agreement to pay down $12 billion in debt (with oil revenues she had saved in a rainy-day fund) in exchange for an $18 billion write-off. The deal was not uncontroversial — a number of disgruntled state governors argued that it violated Nigeria’s Constitution, which requires the distribution of oil revenues between all tiers of government — but it removed an enormous impediment to investment and growth. Today, it is almost universally hailed as the finance minister’s most significant achievement.
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Nigeria’s iron lady can seem excessively doctrinaire at times. A career World Bank employee, she practically exudes the free market orthodoxy that underpins the bank’s policy prescriptions. In fact, when her team at the Nigerian Finance Ministry drew up an economic reform strategy in 2003, the World Bank signed off on it without requesting a single change — "an unprecedented act," Okonjo-Iweala writes in Reforming the Unreformable.
In our interview, I asked what principles she lives by when balancing the need to make structural adjustments with the painful effects these policies can sometimes have on the poor. Her answer was a hodgepodge of technical jargon and bureaucratese: "We look at what are the structural bottlenecks to this economy improving," she said. "What are the fiscal and monetary policy bottlenecks?" Only by identifying and removing these, she said, can Nigeria improve the quality of its growth while "making sure the money is channeled toward social protection programs."
One bottleneck that has proved especially nettlesome is fuel subsidies. In 2011, the Nigerian government spent an estimated $8 billion artificially depressing the price of refined petroleum. Besides flouting the law of supply and demand, such expenditures crowd out other social spending — on health and education, for example — and disproportionately benefit the middle and upper classes. Yet until New Year’s Day 2012, when the government abruptly removed them, fuel subsidies remained one of the few concrete benefits that ordinary Nigerians could count on from their notoriously corrupt government.
Predictably, the doubling of fuel prices that accompanied the subsidy removal ignited massive protests across the country and prompted its main labor unions to go on strike. After weeks of unrest, the government was forced to restore a portion of the subsidies, but not before local business and trade had fallen sharply. Today, the country is still grappling with the fallout from the botched subsidy rollback: Limits on permits for fuel importers and marketers have resulted in severe fuel shortages, though the government and vendors each blame each other for the crisis.
During and after the 2012 riots, much of the public outrage was focused on Okonjo-Iweala, who had been a vocal supporter of eliminating the subsidies (though those close to her say she favored a more gradual approach). As with her early experience misreading President Obasanjo, however, political acumen proved to be a stumbling block. The finance minister’s spirited defense of the subsidy cuts, trotted out in a series of media appearances, seemed tailored to an audience that was already convinced of their necessity: a World Bank boardroom or doting TED talk audience. "Because of the existence of this subsidy, we are not able to fund some of the basic services that Nigerians should have," she said in an interview as the protests raged across the country. "We want to put this money into areas like maternal and child health." That such promises might ring hollow to an electorate so habituated to poor governance appeared not to have occurred to the finance minister.
A persistent criticism that Okonjo-Iweala has faced throughout her career is that her policies have not resulted in broad-based growth. The boom years in Nigeria have been a godsend for a tiny sliver of the elite, but they have produced only modest gains for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum. In fact, the country’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, has actually increased from 0.44 in 2004 to 0.48 in 2010, the last year for which it was measured (the Gini index ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 being perfectly equal and 1 being perfectly unequal). During the same interval, the percentage of Nigerians living on less than $1 per day jumped from 54.9 percent to 60.9 percent. "It remains a paradox," the country’s chief statistician said in 2012, "that despite the fact that the Nigerian economy is growing, the proportion of Nigerians living in poverty is increasing every year."
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At the same time that Okonjo-Iweala’s domestic popularity was taking a hit, the Nigerian finance minister was ascending to new heights on the international stage. With Robert Zoellick set to retire as World Bank president on June 30, 2012, she launched an unlikely campaign to succeed him. Ever since the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were set up at the end of World War II, their leaders have been determined by a gentleman’s agreement: The World Bank is headed by an American and the IMF by a European. That arrangement has come under attack in recent years — not least because emerging economies have driven as much as 75 percent of global growth since 2009 — and Okonjo-Iweala looked like the perfect candidate to break it up for good. As a "consummate insider," as one World Bank employee described her at the time, she was hardly a radical choice. But as the top finance official from one of Africa’s most important economies, her installment atop the World Bank would have been of enormous symbolic importance.
The rock-star finance minister’s campaign quickly gained momentum. South Africa, then the continent’s largest economy, and the African Union both threw their weight behind her candidacy. A number of influential editorial boards also chimed in. "In appointing its next president," the Economist opined, "the bank’s board should reject the nominee of its most influential shareholder, America, and pick Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala." The New York Times editorial board agreed that the bank should take "a serious look" at the Nigerian finance minister. It was clear from the beginning, however, that she faced very long odds. As Okonjo-Iweala herself said two days before Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim was named to the post instead, "You know this thing is not really being decided on merit."
She was right. Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn put it bluntly: "The current president is American and Ngozi was not." Wolfensohn, who as Okonjo-Iweala’s boss had encouraged her to join the Obasanjo administration in 2003, declined to comment on whether he supported her bid for the World Bank presidency nine years later. He did tell me, however, that "if I had been told one day that Ngozi had been named as president, I would have been thrilled because I think she would have done a great job."
This is the kind of enthusiasm for Okonjo-Iweala that still fuels speculation about an eventual bid for the Nigerian presidency, despite the many reasons to think she would be a long shot (that she is a woman, is an Igbo, and has spent many years in the United States are only three of the most obvious impediments she faces). Yet the whispers about her political future persist, perhaps in part because of the globe-trotting elite’s tendency to look for versions of themselves in the leaders of the developing world. Like Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, another Harvard-educated former World Bank employee, Okonjo-Iweala has been feted in the West far more enthusiastically than at home. "She is very popular in Washington," said Campbell, the former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. "Much, much less so in Abuja or Lagos."
When I asked whether she might one day run for president, she responded coyly: "President of what? I’ll let you decide."
If president of Nigeria likely isn’t in the cards, the top job at any one of a number of international financial institutions could well be in her future. The African Development Bank is probably the most likely ("it’s hers to take," said Songwe, her former advisor), but the World Bank and IMF are certainly not out of the question. Said Wolfensohn: "If the world’s balance changes, which undoubtedly it is changing, then I think you could expect that sometime in the future the gentleman’s agreement, and percentage holdings in the institutions, are likely to change."
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In the meantime, Okonjo-Iweala faces an increasingly difficult task back home in Nigeria. She is operating in a much less forgiving environment than in her first go-round as finance minister, with a weak patron in embattled President Goodluck Jonathan, emboldened opponents, and the daily threat of violence. Not only is the Boko Haram insurrection in the northeast claiming record numbers of lives, but the country also faces an ethno-religious conflict in its middle belt and the threat of a renewed insurrection in the oil-rich Niger Delta. "People are getting blown up left, right, and center," said Tayo of Chatham House. "This is not what you want to tell people if they want to come and do business here. The reality is that in parts of the country you need to hire a private security company and live in a compound."
Unsurprisingly, the finance minister has tried to allay investors’ fears by downplaying the severity of the security situation. "On a day-to-day basis, for doing business, it doesn’t affect us," she said, while noting that the violence affects her on a personal level — "because you don’t want your fellow citizens to lose their lives in a senseless insurgency." But just five days after our conversation, after an explosion at an Abuja bus station killed 75 people, she was forced to make a public statement pledging "the largest security operation ever mounted in this country" in advance of the World Economic Forum meeting that took place in the capital during the second week of May.
Even in this increasingly volatile environment, Okonjo-Iweala has notched some noteworthy achievements in her second term as finance minister. She has reformed the country’s customs service, paving the way for enhanced regional trade; launched a mortgage refinance company to help alleviate the credit crunch in the country’s housing sector; and done an impressive job managing Nigeria’s $1 billion sovereign wealth fund. She has also privatized the notoriously weak power sector — one of the biggest impediments to growth in Nigeria — though not everybody has been thrilled with the results so far. On the whole, however, her second term has been less impressive than her first. "They took some easy wins early on, and now they are getting to the really hard stuff," said Frazer, the former assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
It also seems that some of the demons Okonjo-Iweala thought she had laid to rest in her first term are returning with a vengeance. Corruption, in particular, has proved to be an indestructible foe. More troubling stil
l is that Jonathan has shown little interest in doing anything about it, preferring instead to avoid confrontation with powerful vested interests. When Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi accused the state oil company of failing to account for $20 billion in missing oil revenues this past February, the president opted to fire the respected international banker rather than order a serious inquiry. Sanusi was officially dismissed for "financial recklessness and misconduct," but few either inside or outside Nigeria were convinced.
Okonjo-Iweala has since called for a forensic audit of the state oil company — and she told me that PricewaterhouseCoopers had been hired for the job (the accounting firm did not return Foreign Policy‘s request for comment) — but with the presidential election on the horizon in 2015, Jonathan has plenty of reasons to ensure the inquiry doesn’t turn up anything too damaging or widespread. Indeed, the president may be gradually marginalizing his celebrity finance minister, just as President Obasanjo did before him. Beyond the firing of Sanusi, there have been subtle hints that the president may not be coordinating all that closely with Okonjo-Iweala. Two sources close to the finance minister, for example, confirmed that she was taken by surprise by the president’s New Year’s Day fuel subsidy removal. And there is little she can do without presidential backing. "She had no domestic power base of her own," said Campbell. "She is entirely dependent on the power and authority of the president."
The test of Okonjo-Iweala’s continued relevance — and by extension the health of Nigeria’s reform agenda — will play out over the next 18 months as the finance minister pushes her forensic audit. "In some sense her own reputation is attached to this issue," said Songwe of the World Bank. "The audits are what is hanging in the balance right now. If we get the audits, she probably still has some power, and if we don’t get the audits [she may think about resigning]."
The news that Nigeria’s economy is almost twice as big as previously thought, though not really a surprise to anyone, gives Okonjo-Iweala a rare, unambiguous success story to hawk. But by far the most significant result of Nigeria’s statistical face-lift is that it bolsters Jonathan’s position going into next year’s election: Even if he sidelines Okonjo-Iweala completely, he can claim to have given the "giant of Africa" an economy worthy of its name. The irony of Nigeria’s economic coronation, then, is that it comes at a time when the country’s star may be falling. At the very least, it’s in an extended holding pattern.
One could be forgiven for assuming that Nigeria’s new status also strengthens Okonjo-Iweala where she is most effective: promoting her country far away from the hustle and bustle of domestic politics. And it does indeed amount to an additional rhetorical arrow in her quiver, but one that few decision-makers will find credible: "Rebasing is basically a cosmetic change," said Sharma of Morgan Stanley. Yet in our interview, Okonjo-Iweala dutifully deployed the new data as one more reason why developed nations should give Nigeria a bigger seat at the table: "The fact that Nigeria should be in a bigger leadership role should begin to make itself obvious," she said, her team of aides all nodding in coordinated agreement. "One in five Africans is Nigerian. We have now the biggest economy.… [Nigeria is] going to play a big role. So it’s not an ‘if’ question; it’s a ‘when’ question."
Before wrapping up the interview, I asked if Nigeria new status as the biggest economy in Africa means that it belongs in the G-20, the group of 20 finance ministers and central bankers from major economies, which currently includes South Africa. "Why not? It does," was Okonjo-Iweala’s response. There are many who would dispute that claim, but the Nigerian finance minister is better equipped to make the case for membership than most. It is said that the idea for the North American Free Trade Agreement was conceived on the sidelines of Davos. Finessed in a similarly rarified environment, Nigeria’s ascent to the G-20 would be less remarkable.
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