“THE gele is my trademark,” says the Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, describing the colourful head wrap she puts over her short, greying hair before she allows pictures to be taken. “I am very Nigerian from dress to everything.” Some of her critics disagree. During anti-reform protests in January, demonstrators focused their anger on the finance minister. They called her an unwelcome outsider because she spent long periods abroad. She was a managing director at the World Bank before coming home last year.
Sitting in her half-moon-shaped office overlooking Nigeria’s dusty capital, Abuja, Ms Okonjo-Iweala faces an unenviable task. President Goodluck Jonathan has given her just three years to overhaul sub-Saharan Africa’s second-biggest economy, one riven with corruption and inefficiencies, carved up by political bosses and vulnerable to bursts of communal violence. She may not even have that long. Nigeria’s 150m inhabitants are increasingly impatient with their government. They see all politicians, including her, as freeloaders and doubt her motivation for seeking a top job in government.
The charges exasperate her. “I came because I believe in standing up for something and putting my money where my mouth is,” she says. “Who is willing to come in and get their hands dirty? Who is going to fight this corruption?”
During drawn-out negotiations with the president after last year’s election, the 57-year-old insisted on control of all economic ministries, not just finance. At public events she asks to be introduced as the “co-ordinating minister for the economy and the minister of finance”, much to the chagrin of some of her cabinet colleagues.
But none of them could manage the mammoth task of plugging the leaks in an economy built on patronage and rent-seeking. Government overspending and corruption is draining the country’s vast oil revenues, which amount to about $40 billion a year. Ms Okonjo-Iweala hopes a revamped economy will improve employment, infrastructure and health care. Given that Nigeria’s infant and maternal mortality are among the worst in the world, the bar is low. But after many raids on the piggy bank there is surprisingly little left to invest. As much as 74% of official revenues is spent on maintaining the government. Millions go on parliamentary catering and gardening at the presidential villa. Ms Okonjo-Iweala hopes to reduce the government’s bill by a modest 4% by 2015.
The daughter of a tribal king from the turbulent Niger Delta, she was 13 at the outbreak of the Biafran civil war, which killed more than 1m people. Her father, a brigadier in the Biafran army, chose to keep her at home rather than send her to relatives abroad. Later she studied in America at Harvard and MIT.
Ms Okonjo-Iweala is no stranger to Nigerian politics, having been finance minister between 2003 and 2006. She brokered a landmark deal to cancel $12 billion of foreign debt, which made her a star. Yet the reform course she is now pursuing has erased memories of that.
Death threats are no rarity, and the barrage of abuse from the national press and in online forums is continuous. Often referred to as Okonjo-“Wahala”, meaning “trouble” in pidgin, she does not tiptoe around. “If vested interests, benefiting from corruption, are attacking left, right and centre, then you are doing something right. The degree of attack is a barometer,” she says.
Every new reform proposal, no matter how sensible, earns her more ridicule. The removal of petrol subsidies earlier this year caused a rise in fuel prices and triggered a six-day general strike. President Jonathan eventually stepped in, reinstating half the subsidy and promising to use the money he saved to help the poor. The next battle is already looming. Soon the government will unveil a plan to revamp Nigeria’s electricity. Consumer prices must go up to make it workable. No prizes for guessing who will be blamed.