Noticeably absent from the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings in Singapore in September will be Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a star of previous international economic gatherings.

A former vice-president of the World Bank, Dr Okonjo-Iweala is credited with negotiating Africa’s largest debt relief package, a deal that garnered Nigeria $18bn in write-offs, in April. As finance minister she was a dogged reformer, relentless in her efforts to push through painful but necessary improvements.

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Already relegated to the foreign ministry in July, she was removed as the head of president Olusegun Obasanjo’s economic team in early August, prompting her resignation from the cabinet.

It might be too early to say whether the sidelining of Dr Okonjo-Iweala is a step back for Nigerian reform, but Africa certainly needs more, not fewer political leaders genuinely committed to reform. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business in 2006 report, entrepreneurs face more regulatory obstacles in Africa than anywhere else in the world, and in 2004 (the last year measured in the report) the continent lagged behind all other regions in carrying out reforms. For every three African countries that improved regulation, the World Bank says, one made it more burdensome – so, three steps forward, one step back.

World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz has pledged that Africa is the top priority for his tenure, as well it should be. The bank itself is undergoing a process of reform and, among other new tacts, is putting more emphasis on financing small and medium-sized enterprises. These are welcome developments but, though IMF and World Bank support is critical to Africa’s development prospects, there is still only so much that multilateral organisations, aid bodies and the private sector can do: prosperity can only come from homegrown economic and legal-system reforms. This is something Dr Okonjo-Iweala understood; here’s hoping her predecessors in Nigeria and colleagues around the continent do not forget it.

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Courtney Fingar