John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Under Fire and the Ghost of Biafra

by John Campbell
September 19, 2013

Nigeria's Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 26, 2012. (Christian Hartmann/Courtesy Reuters)


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the minister of finance in Goodluck Jonathan’s government, is widely respected by the international economic community. A veteran of the World Bank, she served as finance minister in Olusegun Obasnajo’s second administration (2003-2007) and successfully negotiated Paris Club debt relief.

Her presence in Jonathan’s cabinet has been an important source of confidence in Nigeria by the international investor community even as the country faces a diffuse jihadist revolt in the North labeled Boko Haram, continued ethnic and religious violence in the Middle Belt, and the threat of resumed violence in the oil patch with high levels of oil theft. She is closely tied to the Jonathan administration. Hence, it is no surprise that Jonathan’s political enemies are calling for her resignation on the implausible grounds that she is personally mismanaging the economy. She, in turn, is staunchly denying that she has any intention of resigning.

Ngozi Okonji-Iweala is an Igbo. That ethnic group played the primary role in the attempted secession of Biafra from the Nigerian Federation and the subsequent 1967-1970 civil war. The event deeply scarred Nigeria; estimates are that up to two million people died during the conflict, mostly from starvation and disease. A large percentage of the victims were children. A poster of a starving Igbo child helped energize support for Biafra’s cause in the United States, as did returning Peace Corps volunteers and humanitarian non-governmental organizations. Biafra, the civil rights revolution, and the anti-war movement associated with Vietnam were frequently joined together on American university campuses. However, there was little formal cooperation among the activists that led each cause.

The United States, Britain, and the (then) Soviet Union supported Nigerian national unity, while doing all that they could to stay out of the civil war. Britain and the Soviet Union did sell military equipment to the Nigerian government. Some American human rights activists accused the Lyndon Johnson administration of discouraging the provision of humanitarian assistance to Biafra.

Following the federal victory, the national government pursued a policy of “no winners, no losers,” and Biafra and the Igbo were rapidly re-integrated into the federation. However, there was an understanding that there was a glass ceiling in place that would prevent Igbos from ever assuming the presidency. Igbos–probably the best educated, most Christian, and most “westernized” of the principal ethnic groups–have flourished, and as such are often the focus of jealousy and resentment. Many Igbos, in turn, resent their perceived residual, second-class status.

Many of Jonathan’s political enemies see him as somehow pursuing an “Igbo agenda,” of which Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala allegedly is a part. Jonathan’s political support comes from the south, is heavily Christian, and includes many Igbos. This places Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in a difficult position. Is’haq Modibbo Kawu, writing in Vanguard, reports that Ngozi’s alleged “biafranization” project has gone viral on the web. She confronted the accusations in a lecture she gave in Lagos. She acknowledged the allegations of an alleged Igbo agenda, especially with respect to public appointments. Kawu quotes her as saying, “my point is, I don’t give a damn. If the people got there on merit, they deserve it and we will stick with it as long as we know they didn’t get it through the back door.” Fair enough. But Kawu also quotes her as saying, “by the way, when you think of merit and competition Igbos don’t do badly and that is the problem, we do rather well. Somebody said everybody in the financial sector is Igbo; they begin to list people like the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, the director general of the Stock Exchange, director general of Securities and Exchange Commission, director general of Debt Management Office, myself, and the Sovereign Wealth Fund.”

Kawu characterizes these remarks as Igbo “triumphalist.” That will resonate with Nigerians who resent Igbo success and despise the Jonathan government.

An h/t to Georgetown University’s Herb Howe for his insights and contributions to this blog post that was first published on September 19, 2013.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Chike

    A few points:

    1. While the international community has a lot of confidence in Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, the same cannot be said of the majority of Nigerians. There are very few tangible trickle down effects of her policies on the lives of ordinary Nigerians.

    2. Nigerians began to sour on Okonjo-Iweala during the January 2012 “Occupy Nigeria” riots. Her justification for removal of fuel subsidies wasn’t very convincing & the “palliative measures” she promised are yet to manifest.

    3. In Nigeria, economic growth hasn’t been very inclusive and there hasn’t been much (if any improvement) in the delivery of social services. Okonjo-Iweala is part of the Jonathan administration – & since that administration is unpopular, she is likely to be unpopular too.

    4. The demands for her resignation by “aggrieved governors” (who happen to be majority Northerners) are driven by selfish, sectional interests & the desire to share the proceeds of the Sovereign Wealth Fund. This article was right to point that out.

    5. Ambassador Campbell has described (for the first time) “perceived Igbo marginalization”, this is in contrast to his almost constant reference to “Northern marginalization” – which he thinks should be a key input of US foreign policy in Nigeria.

    My question is this: if “Northern marginalization” is so much more important to US foreign policy than “perceived Igbo marginalization”, why are US & UK diplomats surprised when they are accused of being biased in favour of Northern Nigeria?

    For example, no South Easterner (or anyone from the Niger Delta) has been president of Nigeria from 1970 to 2010 – but that didn’t bother any US diplomat & no US diplomat complained about those regions in Nigeria being “marginalized”.

    Today, almost every US diplomat is willing to jump, head first, on the “Northern Nigerian Muslims are marginalized” bandwagon, simply because we haven’t had a Muslim head of state from Northern Nigeria since 2010.

    6. In summary, US diplomats (ex & serving) should be wary of navigating our ethno/religious minefields. There’s no point quoting people like Is’haq Modibbo Kawu or giving the impression that you are taking sides in our many ethno/religious mini battles.

  • Posted by Prince modibo

    Mr John Campbell your insinuation in your posting that other Nigerians are preventing ibos from assuming the position of president is absurd , presidency can only be given on basis f ballot papers and not by anointing , ,if the ibos get thier ass together and extend the hands of fellowship to other ethnic nationality why not , the same scnerion that brought the civil war in 1966 is playing itself out , trying to corner everything to one ethnic tribe , ,and we are well aware of all this nonsense , and also assuming that ibos are the best educated is nothing but humbug , try and be sure of your research before publication , ibos in Nigeria has the largest out of school children after the insurgency boko haram area nw you got tour conclusion we don’t know , obviously we know that okonjo is working for the IMF and world bank hence your clandestine support of her permanent stay to thier bidding and the ripping off of Nigerians and suck our economy dry


    While Mr Campbell may have served as US Ambassador to Nigeria, his attempt to link Ngozi Nwela’s unpopularity to her being Igbo or Biafra is wrong. Equally wrong is the assertion that the Igbos are the most educated tribe in Nigeria, one must give that to the Yorubas (and that mostly due to the fact that the Yorubas were the first to get in contact with Western civilization). While tribal and religious divisions do exist among Nigerians one shoud not attempt every phenomenon by just using that criteria.

  • Posted by Willy Okorie

    Mr Modibo I hope you are not insinuating that boko haram is the cause of your educational backwardness as any Nigerian with a sense of history knows that quota system, federal character etc had lived with us long before boko haram; and I’m sure you’ll not contest that the ‘the large Igbo out of school children’ were not the targeted beneficiaries.

    And if you do, on what basis would you contend with the Hon Minister’s comment on merit and competitiveness in public appointments?

  • Posted by Adesuyi Ajayi

    Iexpect that your blog will conduct its own analysis rather than depend on hearsay written by a local ethnic irredentist. To my knowledge nobody envies the igbos, and definitely not the Yorubas or Edos who have a solid history of Oyo and Benin empire prior to colonialism and have had a longer and productive contact educationally with western nations. I once attended an interview in corporate America where i was asked which side of the Biafran war i belonged ? The interviewer was disappointed when i answered Federal. This was an illegal interview question but it goes to show the penetration of Biafran war propaganda. An Igbo Nigerian Dr Alex Ekwueme was elected VP in 1979, merely 9 years after the Nigerian civil war ended in 1970. This is much better and quicker than the US experience where Jimmy Carter was the first from a confederate state elected in 1976 to the US presidency, 111 years after the end of the US civil war.
    Many objective analysts applaud Dr Ngozi Iweala who is a Midwest igbo and only married to a core igbo. Her origin was not a part of Biafra. To those who seek to gain political advantage by either playing victim or victor in the avoidable catastrophy of Buafran way, and their megaphone, i say its time to seek other reasons or be silent.

  • Posted by Ebogomo

    as for me i think they deserve and merit those position, i mean while other earthnic groups in the country where busy hustling for political power, these igbos where patciently studying and building themselves for the takeover of economic power of the nation from the southwest and other past of the country. they knew the advantage of economic power over political power, economic power brings real and lasting wealth and fame which are the major pilars of political power.

  • Posted by Nuel Godwin

    Type your comment in here…
    It is amazing how people arrive at ridiculous conclusions from certain premise.
    When has there ever been a census of the most educated in Nigeria? Since when did early exposure to the west become equal to predominant education of a tribe?
    Igbos agreed are among the best educated along with other tribes in Nigeria. My conclusion is simply based on the number if school intakes and gradutlates from the region since at least 1970.
    Okonjo Iweala was from Ogwashi-Ukwu in Delta State before her marriage.
    While I do not agree that the rest of Nigeria hate the Igbos, I sincerely believe that they are envied(it might be impossible for a lot of people to admit this), and sometimes the envy graduate to jealousy.
    However the fact that some government parastatals are headed by people of the same ethnic origin shouldn’t be an issue. The issue should be: are they performing well?
    Nigeria should have outgrown this stupid and backward culture of “where are you from?”, and ask the more relevant “what can you do?”.

  • Posted by Ik Ejekwumadu

    @Prince Modibo:

    1. THE NATIONAL LITERACY SURVEYJUNE, 2010 (National Bureau of Statistics)
    Adult Literacy in English by Geopolitical Zone”
    South South – 81.1
    South East – 80.7
    South West – 75.5
    North Central – 65.1
    North West – 39.7
    North East – 49.8

    2. Who does not know that Northern Nigeria has the least educated population in Nigeria? How many millions of Almajeris are roaming the streets of Northern Nigeria without any form of education and care? I have worked as a college lecturer in the North and I can fully attest to this.

    3. Imo State has consistently had the highest number of applicants to JAMB UME for decades while Unity Schools’ entrance marks are highest in the South East. The last Unity Schools exams showed that Amambra and the South East had the highest cut off mark. When you put this behind the fact that the South East is “said” to be less populated than the North and South West what does that tell you about educational attainment in the South East? Can you have a smaller population and still higher number of applicants and not be most educated?

    @Adesuyi Ajayi:

    1. You call Okonjo Iweala a Mid-West Igbo, what will you call Yorubas in Kwara? Are they North- Central Yorubas?

    2. You said “Her origin was not a part of Biafra”. Does it occur to you that her father was a Biafran army officer? Do you know that Kaduna Nzeogwu was from “Mid-West Igbo”? Do you know that a large contingent of Biafran soldiers came from the “Mid-West Igbo”? Do you know that the Nigerian forces masacred the “Mid-West” Igbo during the civil war? Have you ever heard of the Asaba massacre? Nigerian soldiers considered the “Mid-West” Igbo as part and parcel of the Biafran revolution though they were unfortunately – and just at the time – “geographically Nigeria”. There is no doubt that they would have definitely opted to join their kin in Biafra had the new nation successfully seceded. Does it matter to you that a “Mid-West Igbo” Ralph Uwechue was the President of Ohaneze Ndigbo untill 2012?

    3. Has Okonjo Iweala herself not narrated her own experience of the war. She said: “During the war, my father was a Brigadier in the Biafran army. I was also a teenager at the time. As I said in a tribute recently, I was cooking for the Biafran soldiers at the war front. So Ojukwu was my hero” –

    4.. Even till date, the “Mid-West” Igbo in Delta state are still treated by other Delatns as not “true Deltans”. They basically see them as Igbo no matter the identity crises some of them suffer given the age-long separation of them from their kin in the South East. Besides in Nigeria, “Mid-West Igbos” are subjected to the same hate every other Igbo suffer in Nigeria. When the senselesss killings start in any location in the North are they spared?

    This is not an attempt to gloat in ethnic triumphalism but to put records straight. The Igbo spirit is one that all Nigerian ethnic groups will be better emulating and one that can release the much suppressed potentials of Nigeria. After decades of marginalisation, the Igbo have been able to, through sheer hard work and determination, rise above board in this turbulent entity, Nigeria.

  • Posted by Ik Ejekwumadu

    @Adesuyi Ajayi:

    I forgot to add this. You said:

    “To my knowledge nobody envies the igbos, and definitely not the Yorubas or Edos who have a solid history of Oyo and Benin empire prior to colonialism and have had a longer and productive contact educationally with western nations”

    1. When does it mean that having a more centralised political system mean long term social and economic dominance?

    2. In history empires rise and fall. We have seen the Roman, Byzantine, Othman, and British Empires rise and fall. How many of the successor states of these empires are world powers today. At least not Italy, not Turkey, and to a lesser influence, not the British. Can any of them challenge America in any sphere of life today? America has no such “solid history” of an empire.

    3. Why is Mali, the successor to the Songhai Empire and the home of the first advanced learning institution in Africa – the University of Timbuktu – not the most advanced country in Africa?

    4. The advantage the Igbo have today owes to what you consider an “inferior past”. That is the egalitarian nature of social organisation. The absence of strict hierarchies and the promotion of social mobility is what the Igbos owe their rise in Nigeria to today. This is akin to the America social structure behind the American Dream.

    5. Though the Yorubas had the earliest contact with Western education in Nigeria there is no proof that such an early takeoff cannot be overtaken by another group. The impact of the Catholic Church in the South East cannot be underestimated in the closure and possible overtake of the South West in education. Besides, the Igbo had massive communal investments in education in the early independence and post civil war period that has yielded so much impact in literacy in the last two decades.

    6. The myth of the “most educated South West” has become too ingrained that we seem not to challenge it. Moreover, the stereotype of the “Igbo trader” has made most other Nigerians not to recognise the Igbo educational revolution. It is has to be noted that most of these “traders” have at least “secondary school” education and many are university graduates. Besides, does it not tell a lot that the “Igbo lower” class are well-to-do traders? Surely second generation of these traders will be more likely to afford good education than the children of the poor, and these second generations are already adults. They are educated.

    7. The Igbo attachment to homeland and resilient kinship ties means that remittances flow back from the Diaspora to those in the “rural” areas. The Diaspora has been assisting in building schools, offering scholarships, providing healthcare and other social services. The rural areas in the South East are arguably the most liveable with a sizeable literate population, good housing, comparable to the best in the cities, and other social services.

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