“ A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our organisation faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today.”
– Newly-appointed Director-General of World Trade Orgnisation, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s meritorious appointment on February 15, 2021 as the first female, first African Director-General of the 26-year-old Geneva-based World Trade Organisation is commendable and noteworthy. The WTO General Council agreed by consensus on Monday to select the two-term former Minister of Finance of Nigeria as the organisation’s seventh DG with effect from March 1, 2021. Her term, renewable, will expire on August 31, 2025.
The WTO on its website says its functions include: Administering WTO trade agreements; Forum for trade negotiations; Handling trade disputes; Monitoring national trade policies; Technical assistance and training for developing countries and Cooperation with other international organisations. Established on January 1, 1995 and with a membership of 164 countries representing 98 per cent of world trade, the world trade body has a staff strength of 623.
According to the New York Times of February 15, 2021, Okonjo-Iweala is coming to the WTO at a very challenging time. According to the newspaper, the organisation’s many critics say it has fallen short on several of its core mandates, including failing to advance new trade negotiations and adequately police unfair economic behaviour from China. At a time of growing global protectionism and deep uncertainty for the global economy brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the WTO’s system for dispute settlement also remains crippled after challenges from the Trump administration.
Okonjo-Iweala is however equal to the task of surmounting the enormous challenges facing the global trade body. The 66-year-old Harvard-trained economist and international development expert comes with a wealth or academic and career experiences. She schooled at some of the best ivory towers in the world namely Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States of America. She had earlier graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. in Economics from Harvard University (1976), and earned a Ph.D. in Regional Economics and Development from the MIT, in 1981. She has received honorary degrees from 15 universities worldwide, including some from the most prestigious colleges. Okonjo-Iweala has had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, scaling the ranks to the Number 2 position of Managing Director, Operations from 2007 – 2011. She sits on the boards of Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation and the African Union’s Risk Capacity.
Dr. Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister, from 2003-2006, 2011-2015, and briefly Foreign Affairs Minister in 2006, the first woman to hold both positions in the country’s history. In 2005, Euromoney named her the Global Finance Minister of the Year. As Minister of Finance in Nigeria, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club of Creditors that led to the wiping out of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of $18 billion. In her second term as finance minister, she was responsible for leading reforms that enhanced transparency of government accounts and strengthened institutions against corruption, including the implementation of the Government Integrated Financial Management System, the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Management System and the Treasury Single Accounts.
A princess from Ogwashi-Uku in Delta State, Okonjo-Iweala is the founder of Nigeria’s first ever indigenous opinion-research organisation, NOI-Polls. She also founded the Centre for the Study of Economies of Africa, a development research think tank based in Abuja, Nigeria. She has authored many books among which are, “Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines” (MIT Press, 2018), “Reforming the UnReformable: Lessons from Nigeria”, (MIT Press, 2012).
Okonjo-Iweala has been listed as one of Transparency International’s eight Female Anti-Corruption Fighters Who Inspire (2019), one the 50 Greatest World Leaders (Fortune, 2015), the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World (TIME, 2014), the Top 100 Global Thinkers (Foreign Policy, 2011 and 2012), the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in the World (Forbes, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014), the Top 3 Most Powerful Women in Africa (Forbes, 2012), the Top 10 Most Influential Women in Africa (Forbes, 2011), the Top 100 Women in the World (The UK Guardian, 2011), the Top 150 Women in the World (Newsweek, 2011), and the Top 100 most inspiring people in the World Delivering for Girls and Women (Women Deliver, 2011). She has also been listed among the 73 “brilliant” business influencers in the world by Condé Nast International.
What lessons are there to learn from the life of this amazing amazon and worthy “Nigeria Ambassador Plenipotentiary”? First is that every child should be treated equally whether male or female. If Okonjo-Iweala had not been educated by her parents and had been married off as a teenager without any skill-set for life’s sustenance, she wouldn’t have been able to make a difference in the world. Second is that hard work pays. A quarter of century at the World Bank and a life of selfless service cutting across the private and public sectors have earned her this exalted appointment as the DG of WTO. Third, her never-say-die spirit is exemplary. She is renowned as the first female and black candidate to contest the presidency of the World Bank Group in 2012, she lost at that time and in 2020 October, the US under Donald Trump administration stood against her candidacy as the consensus aspirant to the Director Generalship of the WTO. Eventually, through a lot of diplomatic shuttles, she eventually emerged victorious for the plum job after defeating seven other candidates.
How will Nigeria gain maximally from her leadership of the WTO? Not many analysts are optimistic of Nigeria’s benefits due to our mono-cultural and unproductive economy. I am however of the opinion that Okonjo-Iweala may be helpful in our trade negotiations with other countries especially the world economic powers. Moreover, she may be able to influence a thing or two to the benefits of her home country especially now that Nigeria has signed on to the African Continental Free Trade Area. She could also help to ensure that Nigeria and indeed Africa benefit from COVID-19 vaccines. Overall, I look forward to Okonjo-Iweala making international trade to be fair, especially to all member countries of the WTO.
For Nigeria to however benefit maximally from Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership of the WTO, there is a need for our indigenous industrialists to scale up their productivity. The Federal Government can do a lot by ensuring ease of doing business so that Nigerian commodities will become globally competitive. Value addition to raw materials will also enable Nigerian exporters to earn more revenue. We stand to earn less from our export of crude oil, raw solid minerals and agricultural produce whereas if these commodities are processed into finished or semi-finished goods, our entrepreneurs will earn a lot more foreign exchange.
Hearty congratulations to all Nigerians in the Diaspora making the country of their birth proud. Just last August, Nigeria’s former Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, was re-elected unanimously as President of the African Development Bank Group after the initial disapproval of the USA. His splendid performance in his first tenure ensured that for him. Early this month, President Joe Biden of USA appointed Nigerian-born Enoh Titilayo Ebong as the acting director of the US Trade and Development Agency. Earlier, he had appointed Nigerian-born Adewale Adeyemo (39) as the new Deputy Treasury Secretary. Adeyemo is the first Black person to serve in the role. On January 2, 2021, Biden appointed another Nigerian, Osaremen Okolo (26), as COVID Policy Advisor and a member of the COVID-19 Response Team. On January 12, the US president also appointed Nigerian-born Funmi Olorunnipa Badejo (26), a lawyer and an alumna of Berkeley Law College, as one of the 20 members of the office of the White House counsel.