By Rotimi Fasan
UNTIL Olusegun Obasanjo, three times Nigerian Head of State, retired General of the Nigerian Army, traditional Egba chief, leader of the PDP and, perhaps, Nigeria’s most powerful politician, became president in 1999, virtually nothing was known of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has twice taken the saddle as Nigeria’s Finance Minister.
At the time she became minister, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala had given nearly two decades of her life as economist of the World Bank, rising to the top of her profession. Not much was known about her all this while- at least, not until President Obasanjo appointed her his Finance Minister. In her time as minister under Obasanjo certain controversies, not exactly of her making, would trail her, perhaps the most prominent of which centred round her dollar-denominated salary.
Again she would make the news, rather controversially, when following some apparent misunderstanding with her boss, it was bruited she would resign.
But the sum of her stay in the government was that she became one of very prominent women that emerged during the Obasanjo administration.
Obasanjo has a knack, bolstered by native intelligence, for spotting talent and he brought this to the fore in certain respects with the calibre of the crop of women he involved in his government.
It is a measure of his keen sense for talent-hunting that some of the women he brought into his administration are still holding their own, home and abroad, long after his departure from Aso Rock Villa.
That Okonjo-Iweala would return to Abuja, even though she is not a known member of the PDP or any other party for that matter- that she would return as the minister coordinating matters related to Nigeria’s economy is proof, if no other, that she has more going for her than a prominent godfather.
Even though she almost became Nigeria’s least admired public servant in the immediate aftermath of the increment in fuel price which many saw as her handiwork in January, there is no denying that Okonjo-Iweala knows her job- and very well too.
She is back in the news again, this time as Nigeria’s and Africa’s nominee for president of the World Bank. In the race for the topmost position of the World Bank, the so-called developing world are pushing for a candidate who best represents their interest, understands their challenges and would be best placed to speak for them.
Countries of the South want a change in the leadership of the Bank which many in these parts of the world see with justification as representing the interest of the wealthy, industrialised world that have turned the South into economic laboratories for experimenting with harsh economic policies and conditions that serve but to impoverish the poorer countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. People like Okonjo-Iweala are seen as lackeys of the West in their project of dominating the world economically.
It may therefore seem ironic that the two candidates of the global South in the race for the World Bank presidency, Okonjo-Iweala and former Colombian Minister of Finance, Jose Antonio Ocampo, are hinging their campaign on the need for a change in the continental configuration of the world financial institution while not discounting merit.
The World Bank is one of two leading financial institutions whose leadership has always resided in the West despite their global reach. The other is the IMF. While the World Bank has been historically led by Americans, the leadership of the IMF has always been under the control of Europe. France’s Christine Lagarde who replaced her countryman, the scandal-prone, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, in 2011 is the current president of the IMF.
Already, President Barack Obama has nominated Korean-born American, Dr. Jim Yong Kim. While the American nominee is a health expert, Okonjo-Iweala’s long experience as an economist who has worked in some of the highest positions in the World Bank stands her as the better-positioned candidate but for the formidable American support for Yong Kim whose choice America is trying to pass off as one from the ‘developing’ world.
Both candidates are clearly highly qualified but for American support for Yong Kim, the emergence of Okonjo-Iweala should be foregone conclusion. America is the financial power house of the World Bank and the survival of the organisation has rested and would continue to rest, in large measure, on her financial and political support.
It is clear that America is not about giving up that support, hence its nomination of a Korean who came to America in his preteen years, as response to criticism of her domination of the World Bank leadership.
But this won’t do- the point still remains that Yong Kim is in every particular an American- no less so than Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian. That America would be promoting his candidacy over and above that of Okonjo-Iweala with very long and distinguished years at the World Bank makes relevant the criticism often levelled against the World Bank among other Breton Wood institutions for the geo-political considerations propelling their management.
Homi Kharas of the Brookings Institution, where Olonjo-Iweala has worked in the past, has in a write-up presented the candidacies of Okonjo-Iweala and Yong Kim as a priority choice in the years ahead for the World Bank, a choice between two alternative visions, one directed at poverty reduction for the poorest people embodied by Kim and the other, focused on job creation and strategies for national development, represented by Okonjo-Iweala.
This, no doubt, is a correct reading of the options available to the World Bank and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala articulated her position in very clear-eyed manner in her interview with CNN’s Richard Quest on Quest’s programme on March 28. She comes through as someone with deep knowledge of the turf and one who can do credit to the World Bank and help change the negative impression many have of the institution in the ‘developing’ economies of the world.
The candidacy of Dr. Iweala couldn’t have come at a better time and, I insist, but for her nationality and continental affiliation as an African from the ‘Third World’, there cannot be any debate about her emergence as the next president of the World Bank.
It would be a big minus for the World Bank if America has her way again. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is eminently qualified, her experience is more relevant to the office and her long insider position in the World Bank makes her the better candidate.
The manner President Obama alongside Hillary Clinton presented Dr. Kim at the White House as America’s nominee might make weaker candidates grow weak in the knees. It is gratifying that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala finds neither the office of the World Bank president nor America’s support for another candidate daunting. She is smart, knowledgeable and highly experienced. She is right now the best candidate for president of the World Bank.