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Nigeria's First Female Finance Minister: Still Big Problems In Soaring Economy


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Throughout March, we've been speaking with women who are excelling in technology and related fields. We're taking a look at the advances women are making and the challenges they are facing in those fields. Today, we're going to speak with a woman who's been a pioneer in economics, finance and diplomacy. After she earned her PhD from MIT, she's gone on to become a managing director of the World Bank, the number two position there, and the first woman to hold the position of finance minister in Nigeria, as well as foreign minister.

Now in a return stint as finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is leading a dynamic economy with an established energy sector and a growing tech industry that could help Nigeria overtake South Africa as the largest economic power on the African continent. She's in New York this week on official business working to expand Nigeria's economic ties in the U.S., and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is with us now. Minister, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, we are speaking to women leaders in the STEM fields throughout March. And I noted that in a number of areas, you have been the first woman or the only woman. And I wanted to ask you what qualities you feel have served you best as you entered some of these very male-dominated spheres, particularly in economics and politics.

OKONJO-IWEALA: I think the qualities have been a belief in myself, a strong focus on the results that I need to deliver in that field and just being very clear on the objectives of what we need to get. You know, it's not easy, but I think it's doable if you're sure of yourself and you're clear on results.

MARTIN: Some argue that women who are sure of themselves are reviewed more negatively than either women who don't show confidence in themselves or men who are very confident. I mean, in fact, there's an interesting kind of public relations campaign going on in the U.S. called Ban Bossy, which is - the argument being that women who are confident and assertive are sometimes viewed as bossy, which is a negative term. And I just wondered if that has ever happened to you, and how you address that.

OKONJO-IWEALA: We don't have to listen to that. I think you should just be yourself. But, you know, you also have to watch that fine line about just making sure that when you speak, you're clear on your facts. I think if you know your facts and you know what you're shooting for and you can bring your team in to help you deliver, you know, instill confidence in your team as well at the time you're doing this, then you will not be seen as bossy.

MARTIN: As managing director at the World Bank, you were very highly esteemed as literally that, as a manager. Do you feel that you manage differently than, perhaps, men do in your position, and if so, are there some qualities or some - that you would recommend to others to emulate to achieve those kinds of results?

OKONJO-IWEALA: What helped me in my managing is always making my team feel that I couldn't deliver without them, that they're essential to the results I get and that they're working for a higher purpose. Every time I managed a team, I always made them feel that whatever they were doing, they needed to look at the bigger picture. And I think that women - I don't want to generalize too much - introduce that bit of nurture enough, making people feel part of it.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of results, let's look at some of the issues facing U.S. finance minister for months now. Economists and analysts have been predicting that Nigeria will overtake South Africa as the prime economic power on the continent. But when we spoke to you last, a while ago, you among others expressed the view that the nation's economy was in crisis when you first took this position, which is in part why you took the position. So I wanted to ask you, what are some of the key factors in this turnaround?

OKONJO-IWEALA: You know, we've managed to stabilize the economy. The macroeconomic stabilization has been achieved. You know, we're growing at almost 7 percent per annual. In fact, the IMF is predicting 7.3 percent for us in 2014. We grew at 6.2 percent in 2013. Our inflation has come down from 12 percent to 8 percent, and we're pushing it down further. We have a very low fiscal deficit, 1.9 percent of GDP, and our debt-to-GDP ratio is 21 percent, one of the best in the world.

So I think all these factors, you know, are helping put Nigeria on a steady path. But beyond this, the turnaround is also happening in the way that the government is pushing for creation of jobs in the real sectors - agriculture, housing, even the creative industries - because the big problem we face with our growth is mounting inequality and, you know, the need for jobs for young people. So those are the vulnerabilities that we have, and we're trying to tackle them head-on. So those are the big things that are happening. We've just launched the housing sector. Nigeria needs 17 million housing units. And we've just started a mortgage refinance institution to try and boost liquidating the economy, create houses for people so that young people can have hope of owning a home and also work on mass housing so that people at the lower end of the ladder can also have a home.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the minister of finance in Nigeria, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. This status as Africa's if - which you're on track to become Africa's economic leader, does that status mean anything? Does it affect the lives of ordinary citizens?

OKONJO-IWEALA: Yes. I think, well, we haven't yet announced our results. We are doing what they call rebasing the economy, which means that since 1990, we have not really reevaluated all the sectors of our economy to capture all the economic activity going on there. And a country's supposed to do this every five years. So everyone is waiting that that rebasing is going to boost Nigeria to be the largest economy.

We will soon have the results, we hope, by the end of March. We were not doing it necessarily to become the largest economy but because it needs to be done. But what it means is if we know how our economy is fixed, which sectors matter, we can better invest in them in order to boost jobs and create safety nets for people at the bottom end of the ladder. So it should matter. However, being the biggest economy also comes with big responsibilities because everybody will be looking at Nigeria to do better, to lead in Africa, and that's why we also need to focus on those things that we are not doing so well.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, you have been praised for your economic agenda, which has led to reforms to combat corruption. But the governor of the country's central bank was recently dismissed after he questioned why $20 billion of oil revenue was missing from the treasury, and I just have to ask you your assessment of this. I mean, are his criticisms valid? And what is the status of this?

OKONJO-IWEALA: The oil sector in Nigeria has always had this distrust by Nigerians about how transparent it is. And what has happened is that the president has pushed for a petroleum industry's bill, which will open up the sector. You know, it's going to transform the oil company into a commercial enterprise, and some of the shares will be sold to Nigerians. That way it will become much more accountable and open than it has been over the years. So there is questions about monies that need to be accounted for in the oil sector, and the ministry of finance has been working on this also. But the issue is when you work on this, you need to get results. You know, nobody's going to fight corruption for Nigeria but Nigerians.

MARTIN: There's been an issue that has been of great concern, has gotten a lot of attention in the U.S. And, you know, President Goodluck Jonathan signed a law that further penalizes same-sex relationships and acts in the country. He's not the only president of an African country recently to do this. But officials in this country and elsewhere, particularly in Western Europe, have raised concerns about this move on the part of a number of countries because their argument is that it discourages trade, it discourages - they feel - they consider it an offense to human rights. And I just wanted to ask if you share that concern.

OKONJO-IWEALA: Of course. I share the concerns and, you know, totally believe in human rights. But you have to understand that the U.S., for instance, has had a long journey in dealing with this issue. The U.S. arrived the way it did, where it is today, not overnight. But it's been over 40 to 50 years, you know, of conversation and pushing and fighting and legislation before it got here. In Nigeria now, the president is in a bit of a difficult position because 96 percent of the people support the legislation, and politically, it's very difficult for him to walk away from this. Now what we've got to do in Nigeria is that this gives us a chance to start a conversation, to start understanding, you know, why this needs to evolve. Just the same journey that you've taken over 40 to 50 years in the U.S., we have to begin that journey.

And I believe that it's more constructive to begin that journey by discussion, talking and trying to find the areas where people can, you know, separate issues and be able to support people in the LGBT community. It needs evolution. So I think that that is a better way of approaching the situation than those who think that, perhaps, trying to block business or sanctions or other things. I don't think those will work in a place like Nigeria. I think it's better to work with us to try and turn things around.

MARTIN: Just days after we last spoke, which was in December 2012, your mother was kidnapped, you know, speaking of the security situation in the country. Forgive me if I ask, is she well? Is all well with her now?

OKONJO-IWEALA: She is well. She was actually kidnapped, not just - it wasn't a ordinary kidnap, if you remember. That came out of the work that we had been doing in trying to clean up the oil sector and the fraud that was going on in oil marketing. And as a result, she was kidnapped by those vested interests. She's doing much better. You know, she still remembers the trauma, of course. That's not an easy thing to forget. And we are careful about her security because of the type of work I'm doing and the security of my father. She's with me at the moment in Abuja visiting in my house.

MARTIN: How about you? I mean, one can imagine where an incident like this would perhaps be upsetting, and yet you have continued on with your duties. And I am interested in how you have the fortitude to do that after having faced such a frightening situation.

OKONJO-IWEALA: I feel safe. We have some issues with terrorist attacks in the northeast of the country. It's confined to one part of the country. But in doing the anti-corruption work, yes, you know, sometimes it can have elements of people who don't want you to succeed and who try to vilify you. Actually, the tactic they use is this, it's a try to turn around and accuse you of corruption, of the very thing that they themselves are guilty of.

So, you know, you have to keep fighting. I believe that the only way we can rebuild the country, build institutions and fight corruption is by Nigerians doing it. No one is going to do it for us. You know, like, I always joke to people, it would be so easy for me to have sat in Washington just - and my salary and done my very interesting job, but at the end of the day, you have to think, who is going to go and clean up whatever needs cleaning up? Who will fight whatever needs fighting? It's only us as Nigerians. I can't ask you, Michel, to go and do that. I have to go there myself and do the best I can. And in that respect, that's what we're trying to do, and I will never give up.

MARTIN: Ngozi Okonji-Iweala is the finance minister of Nigeria. We caught up with her in New York. Minister, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

OKONJO-IWEALA: Thank you, Michel. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Just a brief word, we're spending Women's History Month focusing on women who are working to close the gender gap in the tech industries. Our Twitter chats have reached millions of people already. We are already in our second week. We would like to hear from you. If you are a leading lady in tech or an interested observer, let us know what you're up to. You can join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #NPRWIT. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.