Now that the news of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala resigning (or Okonjo-Wahala, as she half-jokingly referred to herself in an interview with the UK Guardian this week) http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,1540043,00.html from the Nigerian cabinet has been confirmed, I think it's important to note her many achievements which are detailed in the Guardian interview. It is very sad that someone who had sacrificed so much and who had contributed so much could be discarded in the shoddy way that she has been. Obasanjo is obviously sending a clear message to Nigerian professionals abroad- come back home and contribute what expertise you can so we can use and dump you.
In some ways I'd seen Dr Okonjo-Iweala as a role model- she had travelled abroad for higher education, attained a position where she was INVITED home to Nigeria to contribute, and because she had been invited and was confident of her competence; and because she had not lobbied anyone for the job, she was able to go into office and take tough decisions and produce results. In 2003, the Nigerian rumour mills were agog with the story that she had resigned her job after President Obasanjo had reneged on their original agreement to put debt management firmly under her portfolio as Minister of Finance. As the story put it, she had already packed her bags and booked her flight back to the US when the President realizing she meant business, had to appeal to her octogenarian professor father to ask his daughter to reconsider. True or not, she did continue in the role of Finance minister and managed the enviable feat of negotiating Nigeria's exit from the Paris Club, the first African country ever to achieve this. Many criticized her policies and some suggested that the debt buy back was not the best deal that Nigeria could have negotiated; but all agreed that her practice of publishing revenue allocations introduced a level of transparency never before seen in economic management. It is also instructive that there has been no whiff of corruption around her person- even the rumours that have swirled have only extended as far as her wider family members- no mean feat in a country where her actions would have meant that many would have been keen to smear her.
Her financial and economic achievements have been widely acknowledged but I would like to celebrate a part of her that did not often get acknowledged- her simplicity.
In Nigeria where flamboyance is the order of the day, Ngozi's consistent dressing in simple ankara cloth often accessorized with simple beads or coconut shell jewellery sent a powerful message to the Nigerian public. She showed that you did not have to be swathed in yards of lace, silk or satin and draped in tonnes of gold to be an effective or powerful woman. Her blunt speaking and sharp mind made her an alternative role model for young Nigerian women everywhere and earned her the respect of the international community.
It is sad that some Nigerian commentators see her decision to resign as a sign of an ego problem. It is no such thing. It was an act of pride and dignity from a fulfilled, capable and self-aware professional woman. She was left with no other choice, following the humiliation that she had received in the last two months. Reading her resignation letter, it's interesting that while she quotes two reasons for her resignation- urgent family reasons and having completed her assignments, the President's reply only acknowledges the first- the family reasons.
When all is said and done, President Obasanjo has not been fair to Dr Okonjo-Iweala, who had borne the brunt of criticism that she and others like her were responsible for creating a veneer of credibility around a corrupt and intellectually bankrupt government.
Yesterday was another sad day for Nigerians everywhere whether we realize it or not. Some of us who were hoping some day to follow in her footsteps will now have to re-evaluate our strategies