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Nigeria FM Called 'Africa's Candidate' for World Bank President

  • Heather Murdock

Bill Gates, right, and Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attend a panel session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 26, 2012.

Bill Gates, right, and Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attend a panel session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 26, 2012.

As the World Bank interviews Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as a candidate for its next president, academics, human rights organizations and regional bodies across Africa are supporting Okonjo-Iweala, with some calling her "Africa's candidate."

At the same time, Africans across the continent are calling on the United States to step aside.

In the 68 years since the World Bank's founding, an American has always held the job of president, while a European has always headed the International Monetary Fund.

In recent years, this dynamic has led to complaints that the West has too much say in organizations that are intended to benefit emerging economies. Many Africans say they should be led by people who are actually from these economies.

Nigerian political scientist Hussaini Abdu, with the anti-poverty group ActionAid says that if Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is chosen to head the World Bank, it would give the institution credibility in countries that do not trust it.

"The significance is the fact that the leadership of the World Bank will be going to the global south. Historically, the global south has seen itself as a victim of the World Bank, not as a beneficiary of the World Bank," said Abdu.

On the streets of Nigeria's capital, locals say that if the selection process is fair and transparent, their finance minister is the obvious choice. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and a former World Bank managing director, Okonjo-Iweala is competing for the bank's top spot with Colombia's former finance minister, José Antonio Ocampo and U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee, Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim.

On a sweltering sidewalk in Abuja, local election official Abdullahi Bello smiles as he discusses Okonjo-Iweala's nomination.

"I think [the] World Bank will need someone like her - an insider," said Bello. "I see [her] as an insider because she has worked with the World Bank before. I think she will do well, if given the opportunity."

But not everyone in Nigeria supports the finance minister, especially earlier this year when she helped Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan cut a decades-old fuel subsidy that economists say institutionalized corruption and slowed economic development.

Prices from virtually everything to gas to food to school fees soared, causing nationwide protests.

At a market in Abuja, Shaibu Anibe, 42, a businessman and father of three children, says most Nigerians no longer blame the minister for the country's situation. He says people now better understand the cut, and object only to the abruptness of the decision.

"If you know you are going to remove the fuel subsidy, give six months, eight months, one year notice. You should be able to convince Nigerians on why it should be removed," said Anibe.

As Okonjo-Iweala's bid gains momentum, experts say the World Bank is under increasing pressure to consider her for the seat. Originally nominated by South Africa, Nigeria and Angola, the minister later won endorsements from the African Union, regional leaders, the Nigerian presidency, and news organizations across the continent and beyond, including from The Economist magazine and The Guardian newspaper in Britain.

Other leaders, including World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who is stepping down at the end of June, have said that picking a non-American might be a mistake because it could lead to loss of American interest in and funding for the international organization.

Political scientist Hussaini Abdu calls the idea "ridiculous."

"We don't actually think that the world should continue to be blackmailed by what America is actually putting out there," said Abdu. "I think America should accept that when America is making such contributions, it is only making the contribution to increase its influence."

The World Bank has promised a fair and transparent process and is expected to announce its decision later this month. Although all of candidates have powerful supporters around the world, some Nigerians are calling their finance minister, "Africa's pride."

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