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Nigeria’s Finance Minister on the World Bank, corruption and missing schoolgirls

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaking at the Fortune Most Powerful Women International event on Tuesday at London's Rosewood Hotel.Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaking at the Fortune Most Powerful Women International event on Tuesday at London's Rosewood Hotel.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaking at the Fortune Most Powerful Women International event on Tuesday at London's Rosewood Hotel.Fiona Hanson -- AP

You may recognize Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s name from 2011 headlines. For the first time since its founding, the World Bank agreed to a merit-based presidential election that year. (Historically, the president of the World Bank is a U.S. citizen and the head of its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, is a European citizen.) Okonjo-Iweala had just begun her second stint as Nigeria’s minister of finance, but that didn’t stop a group of African presidents from recruiting her to run for the World Bank’s top job. She was up against U.S. candidate Jim Yong Kim, then Dartmouth College’s president, and Okonjo-Iweala was often touted as the more experienced candidate; she had previously spent 21 years at the World Bank. It seemed like Okonjo-Iweala could make history.

But she didn’t. Despite the rule change, the World Bank went with Kim. “If you say you are going to do things based on a certain set of rules, and then you go around and do them on another set of rules, what sort of example does that set for the world?” Okonjo-Iweala asked the audience at the Fortune Most Powerful Women International conference in London on Tuesday. “I was a little sad…that people would write one thing in the rules and actually do the opposite.”

Okonjo-Iweala runs 25% of Africa’s economy, a task not without its challenges. She’s led investigations of corrupt oil companies and reformed payroll platforms to minimize leakage. “You have to roll up your sleeves,” she explained. But her push for change sometimes comes at a price. In 2012, opponents of her attempts to clean up oil subsidy fraud kidnapped her 82-year-old mother. They didn’t want money; they wanted Okonjo-Iweala to resign. “I was sitting there in my room, feeling very depressed not knowing what would happen,” she said. “And [my father] came up and said, ‘This is what they want. They want you depressed. You have to get up and go to work.'” Okonjo-Iweala put on a brave face and went to her office, even presenting during a cabinet meeting that day. “That image of not being intimidated, of carrying on, may actually have helped,” she said. Her mother was shortly returned.

Another case of kidnapping is on Okonjo-Iweala’s more immediate radar. A group of more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped in April by the Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist group. Their whereabouts are still unknown and the Nigerian government has received immense criticism for their inaction. “I think that the mistake we made is that we allowed a gap in communication, which allowed people to characterize the government as doing nothing,” Okonjo-Iweala said. The kidnappers are unpredictable, deeply inhumane people, she added, and Nigeria’s president wants to be careful to ensure that every girl is found alive. “From what I know, this is something that is near to our hearts. All avenues are being pursued to try and locate the girls and get them back.” Nigeria’s also received help from the U.S., U.K., France, China and Israel. “I just want the world to know that this matter hasn’t been left alone or forgotten.” To help combat attacks like the one on the Chibok school, Nigeria announced last week the Safe Schools Initiative, funded by the government and former U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown. The campaign will first focus on improving the safety and security of schools in emergency states where the Boko Haram is most threatening before spreading to other parts of the country.

Okonjo-Iweala admitted her job is exhausting– and her four children and two grandchildren help recharge her. “What is so pleasing is when they look at you and they don’t remember the career. They are very supportive, but they make you feel like a human being,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “I’m running all the time. Those 18 hour days… It’s grueling. But when somebody pulls you back to the more human or mundane things, that’s what makes life worth it.”

Editors’ note: An earlier version of this story included quotes that were taken out of context.