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Nigeria/WTO: A who’s who of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s network

By Olivier Holmey
Posted on Wednesday, 5 May 2021 11:24

Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), relies on a solid network that ranges from Washington to Abuja. We map out who's who in her world.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian economist who graduated from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she obtained her doctorate. She had a long career at the World Bank, where she ended up rising to the number two position, before making a name for herself in politics.

She served as Nigeria’s first female minister of finance and then (briefly) of foreign affairs. She is also the first woman and African to head the WTO.

The motivators 

Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi

Okonjo-Iweala’s aunt, the academic and author, who acknowledges her niece’s support in several of her works, is one of the WTO boss’ biggest motivators. Ogunyemi, who is a theorist of “womanism” – a concept that places the fight for women’s rights within a racial context – inspired Okonjo-Iweala to use the term.

In her latest book, Women and Leadership, Okonjo-Iweala states that she is a womanist who is fighting for gender equality.

Uzodinma Iweala

Her eldest son is another important family figure within her personal and professional life. Dr. Iweala is the CEO of the Africa Center in New York, which is a hyper-connected cultural centre funded by Aliko Dangote, among others.

He is also the author of the best-selling novel Beasts of No Nation, which has been adapted into a movie by Netflix, starring British actor Idris Elba.

Okonjo-Iweala wanted to find an inspirational book for her son about an African hero, but couldn’t find one, so she decided to write one herself, about the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light, published in 2003). This project, which was carried out with Tijan Sallah, a Gambian poet and economist who also worked for the World Bank, kept her busy for eight years.

The women in power 

Julia Gillard

Australia’s former prime minister Julia Gillard met Okonjo-Iweala in 2011 during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. From conferences to summits, the two women talked about the sexism they experienced and became friends.

They ended up writing a book together on women in power (Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons), which was published by Bantam Press in 2020. “What attracted me to her was that she was a woman who had also gone through hardship,” Okonjo-Iweala wrote about Gillard.

Christine Lagarde

The two women’s careers are similar. They both spent 25 years working for an international organisation, rising through the ranks – one at the World Bank, the other at the law firm Baker & McKenzie – before each being appointed as the first female finance minister of their respective countries, and ending up at the head of major multinational institutions.

The President of the European Central Bank has praised Okonjo-Iweala’s methods – “an iron fist in a velvet glove” – and sees her as a friend. The Nigerian economist attended Christine Lagarde’s farewell dinner from the IMF in 2019.

Zeti Akhtar Aziz

They met in the early 2000s, when Zeti Akhtar Aziz was governor of the Malaysian Central Bank and Okonjo-Iweala was in charge of Southeast Asian issues at the World Bank. The two women worked closely together to help Malaysia out of the financial crisis that had affected the region since 1997.

Since then, they have remained friends and have been working together again since 2016, when they were both appointed to the prestigious advisory board of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral institution ($12bn invested at the end of 2019).

The communicators

Molly Toomey and Tim Sculthorpe

“No PR agency is working for me,” said the woman whose bid for the WTO’s top job was intended to be driven by popular opinion and not by Washington lobbyists last July. However, if you check the US Senate lobby register, you will notice that the international communications agency Mercury was working on Okonjo-Iweala’s behalf since June 2020.

Two Mercury representatives were in charge of her campaign. These were managing director Molly Toomey, who was a part of the campaign that helped elect Akinwumi Adesina as president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in 2015, and vice president Tim Sculthorpe, who was a journalist with the English tabloid press and then spokesperson for the country’s former finance minister, Sajid Javid.

Hiring these two experienced PR professionals tarnished her image as that of an outsider candidate and attracted the wrath of some Nigerian newspapers, who reported that Mercury also works for Nnamdi Kanu, a pro-Biafran separatist activist and virulent opponent of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari. The latter, however, supported Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy.

Paul Nwabuikwu

Paul Nwabuikwu, who was already at her side when she became Nigeria’s finance minister in 2011, has informed the public of the most significant events in her life, from her mother’s kidnapping in 2012 to her father’s death in 2019. Okonjo-Iweala has often praised his loyalty, integrity and tenacity, as he continues to tirelessly defend her from all criticism.

Recently, he put an end to the controversy tied to the Mercury agency, a fact that Okonjo-Iweala had denied for a while, by declaring that some Mercury employees had participated in her WTO presidential campaign, but as volunteers.

The Nigerian network

Muhammadu Buhari

Buhari did not support her presidential bid from the very beginning – far from it. However, in June 2020, he gave life to Okonjo-Iweala’s WTO presidential campaign by declaring her the official candidate of the West African giant. This was a blow to Yonov Frederick Agah, Nigeria’s permanent representative to the organisation, who thought he had secured his country’s sponsorship. In the end, Buhari backed Okonjo-Iweala – who had served under both former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, his historical rivals – simply because she had seemed the most likely to win.

This marriage of circumstance, which was sought by Buhari’s chief of staff Ibrahim Gambari, was consolidated in March during the new WTO boss’ first official trip to Nigeria. At Villa Aso, the President’s official residence, she had thanked both men for the help they had given her throughout her campaign.

Akinwumi Adesina

The AfDB president is a long-time ally of hers. Okonjo-Iweala and Adesina, who both served as ministers under President Jonathan during the first half of the 2010s, have supported one another ever since.

In 2015, Adesina even went so far as to say that he would not have become president of the AfDB if Okonjo-Iweala had not worked behind the scenes to win over the governors of the pan-African institution. In 2020, she supported Adesina’s controversial re-election, and the former Nigerian agriculture minister returned the favour by supporting her during her WTO presidential campaign.

Geneva’s network

Seth Berkley

Geneva, where the WTO is based, is no stranger to Okonjo-Iweala. From 2016 to 2020, she was the chair of the board of directors of Gavi, the Global Vaccine Alliance, which is based near Lake Geneva. There she worked closely with Seth Berkley, who has headed Gavi since 2011 and is known for his commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

This role has also enabled her to forge links with billionaire Bill Gates and WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, both of whom are very close to the Geneva-based organisation. José Manuel Barroso, the former president of the European Commission who has since moved on to the investment bank Goldman Sachs, took over from Okonjo-Iweala as head of Gavi earlier this year. It remains to be seen which of her loyal lieutenants will accompany her to Geneva, where she is reportedly still putting together her cabinet.

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