Rebuilding a Life and Then a Country

Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at April's Vital Voices awards at the Kennedy Center.
Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at April's Vital Voices awards at the Kennedy Center. (By Sharon Farmer -- Vital Voices)
By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

It fell to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala , barely 13 at the start of the Nigeria-Biafra war, to save her baby sister, struck down with malaria. Her father had joined the Biafran army, and her mother was too ill and weak to tend to her sick child.

The only doctor was about six miles away. So Okonjo-Iweala bundled her 3-year-old sister, burning with fever, into a cloth tied to her back. She began a trek in stifling heat, the sun scorching down on her.

When she arrived at the makeshift clinic, she recalled in an interview, it was besieged by hundreds of people. She broke into tears. But soon she crawled between the legs of the grown-ups and saw a window. She pushed her sister through it, then followed, landing at the feet of a doctor. "My sister is dying," she cried. The child was saved.

Okonjo-Iweala is no stranger to heavy burdens, and today, at age 51, she has a new one: She is the first female finance minister in Nigeria, and in Africa. In that role, she has overseen an opening up of finances in a corruption-riddled country and the paying off of billions of dollars in debt.

In 2003, the Harvard and MIT-trained economist was living in Washington and working at the World Bank, with three children in college and one in high school and her husband settled in a medical practice. Then a call came from Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo .

"I felt Africa was a problem for Africans to solve," she said, describing her decision to give up a comfortable life here and return to wrestle with debt and corruption. "If we all run away, who will do it? That's my strategy," she said in the interview.

On April 27, in recognition of her long career, she was awarded the Vital Voices Economic Development Award at a lavish Kennedy Center ceremony. It featured Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour , actress and goodwill ambassador Julia Ormond and scores of others.

"This is a woman who was in the right place at the right time to make a critical difference for the new Nigeria," said Melanne Verveer , who was Clinton's chief of staff at the White House and now chairs a bipartisan board of directors for Vital Voices, which works to promote the standing of women.

In the interview, Okonjo-Iweala described a "magical and happy childhood." She lived in her early years -- as her parents studied at European universities -- with her grandmother Dora, a "loving disciplinarian." She attended a rural school behind the house on weekdays and roamed the fields on weekends. She helped weed her grandmother's farm. She collected firewood and mushrooms and fetched water from a stream in hollowed gourds.

When her parents returned in 1963, she was whisked off to a staff school at a university where they taught in western Nigeria. She mastered English by reading Enid Blyton books, "Treasure Island" and Bobbsey Twins mysteries. She was accepted into a select high school that ranked third in the country. There were ballet and piano lessons, but all that ended when the Biafra war broke out in 1967.

When peace returned in 1970, her family had lost everything -- house, savings, belongings. Her father asked his seven children: "Look around you, what do you have?" Okonjo-Iweala, the eldest by six years, replied: "Nothing."

"You have a head on your shoulders and you have a brain. Use it. Even if you lost everything, you can start again," her father corrected. The family recovered, and at age 18, she headed to Harvard to study economics. She went on to MIT to get her doctorate. All her siblings also went to college.

As finance minister, she has led a team of economists and prosecutors on a bumpy road toward making public finances transparent, improving trade and infrastructure, and investing in health and education.

"We started to publish figures in a bulletin inserted in newspapers, such as the revenue from oil, how much went to local government for what, and people began to ask questions: Why is there no chalk, why are there potholes in our roads?" she said. The bulletins sold out every time.

"It unleashed a whole conversation on how much resources states and local government were allocated and how they used them," she added.

To some people resisting change, this was unwelcome. Her husband received phone calls warning that her life was in danger. Stories were planted in the press attacking the character of the prosecutor in charge of the economic and financial crimes commission. One message left on Okonjo-Iweala's voicemail said: "You are tearing the place upside down. The country would be better off without you."

"It was hurtful but not daunting. They thought that by attacking me I would leave," she recalled.

Nigeria's growth rate had been stagnant at 3 percent for 10 years until 2000; it was 6.3 percent last year. Under her oversight, the amount of oil revenue going toward the national budget was capped, and the surplus that resulted from the recent run-up in oil prices went to retire Nigeria's huge debt.

In April came a welcome milestone: Nigeria announced that it was no longer in debt to the Paris Club, the group of wealthy lender countries to which it had owed nearly $30 billion. A combination of payments and debt forgiveness cleared those books; Nigeria still owes about $5 billion to other lenders.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company