With Presidential Elections, Nigeria Wins. But it Loses, Too.

04/16/2015 04:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

President Goodluck Jonathan's historic phone call -- conceding defeat to his opponent after a democratic election -- was a first for Nigeria and a rarity on the continent.

The irony and the ecstasy, let's call it. It took Goodluck Jonathan losing an election to gain the world's respect. As Mo Ibrahim, one of Africa's most prominent democracy advocates, said in a public letter to Mr. Jonathan: "If you are seeking a legacy, you have definitely achieved it."

It was a tremendous moment for democracy, Nigeria and Africa's future. There's no doubt about that.

Commentators have been fond of saying that it wasn't about who won or lost this election, but how they played the game. It has been lauded, quite simply, as: "a victory for democracy," or "a victory for Nigeria." And it's true -- the victory is in the new reality that if Nigerians are dissatisfied with a president, they can vote him out. A right so simple and yet often so elusive in Africa.

However, the cold hard truth is that there will be loss for Nigerians. Regardless of your opinion of Mr. Jonathan, and in spite of the handful of bad actors who filled some important positions, he's also had some truly stellar people filling extremely important roles -- people who it will be difficult to see go.

The most glaring example is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Okonjo-Iweala is a renowned global economist who has been serving as Mr. Jonathan's Finance Minister. Just last month, she was named one of the 50 greatest world leaders by Fortune Magazine.

She was also one of the TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World, interviewed by Bono, who wrote: "Ngozi has made corruption her enemy and stability her goal." In a country plagued by corruption and instability for decades, her fierce determination to rid the government of its old ways has been sorely needed. But it hasn't always made her the most popular woman in town. In fact, when she served as Finance Minister the first time around, under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, she resigned in frustration after being blocked from pushing through the tough anti-corruption and economic protection measures upon which she insisted. It was during those years, in the early 2000s, when opponents of her reform agenda -- likely those who stood to gain from keeping the graft-ridden system untouched -- gave her the nickname "Okonjo-Wahala" ("wahala" means "trouble" in one of the Nigerian languages).

But that didn't stop her. She has invented and implemented countless anti-corruption measures under the current administration. To put an end to illicit government spending and endemic disappearance of funds, she has introduced new technologies and digitized government payments -- making it seemingly impossible to circumvent her watchful eye. Among other interventions, payments to civil servants are now made electronically and directly into their bank accounts, after a biometric technology verifies the transaction. This has reportedly saved the government (and the people) billions of dollars that used to be lost to "ghost workers" every year.

Beyond just cleaning up shop, Okonjo-Iweala has done a lot to grow the economy. Under her management, the Nigerian economy surpassed South Africa's to become the largest on the continent.

Foreign Policy Magazine dubbed her "a rock star in a hard place," and said that, "Okonjo-Iweala has done more to shape Nigeria's economic success story than any other individual... During her tenure, the country of 170 million people has seen its status as an investment destination soar, with emerging-markets gurus like Ruchir Sharma and Mark Mobius singling it out as one of the world's hottest frontier markets."

On her watch, through cautious management of public funds and bold reforms, external debt is at 2 percent of GDP, down from over 60 percent. The government of the United Kingdom even went so far as to name Nigeria's debt management system as one of the best in the world.

Through all the tumult endured by Nigeria over the past several years, Okonjo-Iweala's hands remained steady (and clean) and her integrity and intentions were never in question.

That is almost unheard of in Nigeria.

For all the uncertainties ahead for Nigeria, one thing is crystal clear: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala leaves some big shoes to fill.