Black History Month: Celebrating Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

by Duke Magazine

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian economist who, on March 3rd, 2021, was sworn in as the first woman and first African director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO). She was also the longest-serving finance minister in the government of Nigeria and has headed initiatives prioritizing the economies of low-income countries at the World Bank.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was born on June 13, 1954, in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, Nigeria. She studied at Nigeria’s oldest girls’ secondary school and traveled to the U.S. to study at Harvard University as a teenager (1973). She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a bachelor’s in economics (1976) and later earned her Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1981.

Since then, she has been awarded 15 honorary degrees from other institutions around the world. After receiving her doctoral degree, Okonjo-Iweala served for 25 years in the World Bank where she rose to the no. 2 position as managing director of operations. In that post, she supervised development projects and portfolios in Europe, Africa, Central Asia, and South Asia.

Okonjo-Iweala made history in Nigeria after being appointed the first woman and longest-serving Finance Minister of Nigeria. She was first appointed by President Olusegun Obasanjo (2003-2006) and again by President Goodluck Jonathan (2011-2015). She also served as Minister of Foreign Affairs between her two terms.

During this time in government, Okonjo-Iweala sought to bring about reforms that increased fiscal transparency in government and reduced corruption by publishing government distributions to different departments and local offices on the finance ministry website and in newspapers.

In 2005, she led negotiations with the Paris Club, an assembly of the world’s most developed nations, which led to the restructuring of 30 billion dollars of external debt owed by Nigeria as well as the outright cancellation of 18 billion dollars of debt.

When Okonjo-Iweala was serving her second term under President Jonathan, she received death threats and suffered the kidnapping of her mother (who was later released by kidnappers). Despite this adversity, due to her reform programs and work as finance minister, Okonjo-Iweala is credited with helping grow the Nigerian economy, which has recently overtaken South Africa as the largest economy in Africa.

Okonjo-Iweala has written or co-written six books and has authored numerous works on development and finance. She has been featured on Forbes magazine’s 100 most powerful women in the world for four straight years and was recognized by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Most recently, Okonjo-Iweala has been elected as the World Trade Organization’s Director-General where she will be a spokesperson for the WTO and be instrumental in facilitating trade negotiations and settling disputes between member nations.

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