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Born to professors in what was then still a British colony, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was a teenager when civil war broke out in Nigeria seven years after independence, and she ended up working as a cook for the Biafran rebels on the frontlines. After leaving Nigeria to study economics at Harvard and then MIT, she spent two decades at the World Bank, eventually becoming a vice president. In 2003, Okonjo-Iweala returned to Nigeria to serve as finance minister in the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, but she resigned in frustration in 2006. (To opponents of her reform agenda, she had become known as “Okonjo-Wahala,” a play on the Hausa word for “trouble.”) After another stint at the World Bank, this time as a managing director, she was invited back to Nigeria by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 to head his economic team and once again take up the post of finance minister. She spoke with Foreign Affairs senior editor Stuart Reid in Abuja last December.
As a student in the United States, what did you find was the biggest misconception Westerners had about Africa?
Where do you start? Then, you didn’t have the Internet. Many people didn’t travel to Africa. Some people forget that it’s made up of 54 countries. Africa to them becomes one large country. They don’t contend with the diversity of it. Within academia, it was a little bit better. People knew about the economics, maybe the geography -- but they didn’t know how people lived. They were not aware that African countries had an emerging middle class. There was just the image of a continent full of poor people who were not very educated, and beautiful scenery and animals. Now, I think, this has changed.
You were Nigeria’s first female finance minister. How much progress have women made in Nigeria, and how much work is left?
Women are extremely active in the private sector, as entrepreneurs and in the professions. Nigerian women have been educated for some time. But we have a problem in the north, where not enough girls are in school and there’s early marriage. A law has just been passed against that.