For many years, African women have been relegated to mere observers in the socio-political and economic scheme of things. They are considered only ‘good to be seen, nor heard.’ And their voices, when they deign to talk, are drowned out by the clamour of male chauvinists that abound on the continent. To them, women are supposed to take the back seat. I think these people have had their way far too long! Thank goodness, this narrative of Africa is gradually changing!
At the 9th Annual Conference of the African Leadership forum, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia and the first African female President, gave credence to the impact of women in the development and actualization of a nation. She affirmed that, “the vision of women is one of inclusion, not exclusion; peace, not conflict; integrity, not corruption; and consensus, not imposition. The challenge of development in Africa today is to identify and nurture the kind of leadership that will move our countries from their present state onto the path of peace and sustainable development. If we are to transform our societies, it will be the energy and vision of women which will give the momentum to the necessary changes.”
From the foregoing, one woman whose vision, energy, and leadership have been pivotal in the transformation of Nigeria, nay Africa, and in projecting its image in a favourable light in the eyes of the Western world is Dr. Mrs. Ngozi-Okonjo Iweala, the Nigerian Finance Minister. Having begun her career as an economist at the World Bank and rising through the ranks to the position of Vice-President and Corporate Secretary of the World Bank Group, Ngozi came into limelight in Nigeria after she submitted a brief on economic reforms to President Olusegun Obasanjo. The Former president was so impressed by her industry that he asked her to serve as his finance minister, thus making her the first female to occupy that office in Nigeria. In 2007, she returned to the World Bank, and was recalled by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 to come and hold forte as the country’s Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance.
Ngozi’s blossom is not an overnight occurrence, but an offshoot of family ethics and personal grooming. From her young age, she demonstrated remarkable courage, doggedness and conscientiousness in the face of adversity. On one occasion, at age 15, with a sick mother at home, Ngozi carried her critically ill three-year old sister on her back for over three hours, trekking about 10 kilometres to see the doctor. At that time, there was a ravaging civil war between Nigeria and the Biafran state, so few good doctors were available to attend to patients. On getting to the clinic, there were about a thousand people outside, trying to break down the door. Undeterred, she pushed her way through the crowd and climbed through the window to see the doctor. The doctor later told her she had barely saved her sister’s life.
During her first stint as Minister of Finance, she exhibited the same doggedness which earned her international acclaim and sparked off the reform spree in the Nigerian economy. In 2003, she succeeded in reducing Nigeria’s debt burden from $30 billion to $12 billion. This remains the only time the Paris Club has allowed a debtor nation to buy back its debt below par. Under her watch, the nation’s inflation came down by more than half. In 2003, Nigeria was listed as the most corrupt country in the world. In 2005, it was adjudged one of the 21 most improved countries in the world.
In her short reign so far this term, she trimmed the nation’s annual budget by reducing the recurrent spending that makes the Nigerian government one of the world’s most costly. Domestic borrowing was also downed from N852 billion in 2011 to N744 billion in 2012. Delays usually experienced in clearing goods at the Port have been cut to one week, from three as was the case before she assumed office, and she is still gunning to reduce that to 48 hours. Her team also found that there were 5,000 more names on the civil service payroll than the actual people turning up for work, so they used the biometric testing to separate the real workers from the ghost workers.
Aunty Ngozi is ensuring that Nigeria’s Excess Crude Account (ECA), which was $20 billion in 2007, but had been cut to $4.22 billion by the time she returned in 2011, is restored. She is clamping down on greedy oil marketers who had been milking this nation dry to the tune of trillions of naira in fraudulent subsidy claims. She is also floating the Sovereign Wealth Fund, which is the most industrious way to save money for future generations, fund infrastructure and defend the economy against commodity price shocks.
Ngozi is a tenacious fighter of corruption, and has made significant progress against corrupt business and government practices in Nigeria. She once said, “if you fight corruption, corruption tends to fight back.’ There have been numerous attacks on her reputation on the internet and she has received death threats from different individuals who are against the development of Nigeria –yet she is courageous enough to remain in battle. Recently, her aged mother was kidnapped by unscrupulous elements in a frantic attempt to get at her. But she remains resolute in her service to her fatherland.
As stated earlier, women like Ngozi – powerful, visionary, and determined – are perpetually victimized by their male chauvinists, who are threatened by women in leadership or who consider women as homemakers that have no business in business or leadership. And it seems those who cannot stand the gut of this great woman are staging a comeback. Not too long ago, spokesman member of the lower legislative chamber of the federation, called Ngozi a ‘liar’ for demanding accountability in the implementation of the budget. He forgot to accuse the numerous politicians of his kind who carry placards admonishing us to vote for them; ‘If you vote for me, I will build good roads and turn your state around for the better.’
To me, these are the ‘real liars’ who never honour their promises yet loot public funds. These politicians who depend on godfathers to install them in positions of power – unlike Ngozi who neither has nor needs any godfather. She earned every position to which she was appointed by dint of hard work and the favour of mother Fortune.
We saw another macho display against this amazon late last year when the President of NUPENG brazenly demanded her resignation. This call was most shocking considering the fact that oil marketers have turned the subsidy regime into a source of illicit wealth. And Ngozi is demanding that government pay the exact amount of subsidy it owes the marketers. Her clamour is for a system of accountability in the payment of subsidy claim. But the macho cry of the NUPENG helmsman is ‘sack’!
In Nigeria, where godfatherism, oil cabals, religious wars and corrupt politicians hinder the development of the economy, Ngozi remains a ray of hope, fighting for the Nigerian economy to grow, develop and bloom. And no amount of bullying will stop this amazon!
Ayodeji writes from Lagos, Nigeria.