Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s win is a reminder that we have huge untapped potential in Nigerian women

Former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (NOI) has attained another first. As is to be expected, a litany of congratulatory messages to her for clinching the position of Director General of World Trade Organization (WTO) has followed with zero acknowledgement to how she attained feat after feat in spite of rather than because of Nigeria’s atmosphere.

Every now and again, Nigeria’s young women are encouraged with the feats of high-achieving women like NOI, Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie, late Professor Dora Akunyili and UN Deputy National Secretary Amina J. Muhammad.

You have seen it before. Packaged as well-intentioned advice, it goes thus, “more of our women should look up to NOI and understand that this is the real slay.” The implication is if Nigerian women will just work hard enough, anything is possible.

Late Prof. Dora Akunyili, whose tireless and thankless labour is brought up not as an example of how best to run a government parastatal to achieve its aims notwithstanding the rot all around it, did so well that none of her successors has yet matched her achievements.

Again, in spite of, rather than because of the system she had to operate within. Nigeria’s very constitution is written in a language that excludes women; with labour laws that exclude women from working night jobs save for health sector workers.

By all indices, Nigerian women do more than their fair share of thankless labour and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is no exception to this immutable truth. She alluded to it in a recent interview with AriseNews where she noted that the exceptional work she did as finance minister under two different Nigerian presidents is why it is possible to have a Zainab Shamsuna as Nigeria’s finance minister.

“Opening this door as I did when I became finance minister by first President Olusegun Obasanjo then President Goodluck Jonathan by trying to deliver because I recognized that if I did a good job other people will not have inhibition about giving women the job,” she said, “that was a very big objective for me, and it worked. Since I had the job there have been three other women who have been nominated.”

With over 100 member states all rallying to support her candidacy, everything about her appointment is about trust in her capacity to deliver. It is a fact that should invite reflection about the potential being wasted when laws and regulations in Nigeria limit what Nigerian women living and working in Nigeria can aspire to or accomplish.

It is easy to say if NOI can do it why can’t a Temilola from Badagry? This essentially ignores the pain of working, not just to deliver but also to overcome a system that gets in your way at every step. No one deserves having to negotiate every step of their growth simply because they are women.

Nigeria is obsessed with controlling how women come into public space, and it limits the number of NOIs we can hope to have; if the environment is equally enabling for all sexes.

In addition, the real work isn’t in touting an NOI or a Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie (CNA); two women who have attained great feat in spite of rather than because of the oppressive atmosphere in a country like Nigeria.

The real work is in reconstructing the oppressive system that not only limits what women can aspire to, but also punishes the women who dare to be anything outside the system’s notion of respectability.

Women can be an NOI or a CNA, they can also be ‘slay queens.’ One is not more deserving of respect than the other.

Until we are comfortable with that as a society, no woman is free.

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