Francis Ezem

The recent emergence of Nigeria’s candidate for the position of the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation WTO, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as one of the two female candidates to proceed to the final stage in the race to lead the Geneva-based global trade body, has severally been described as a welcome development. She emerged alongside Republic of Korea’s Ms. Yoo Myung-hee.

Their emergence followed the eviction of the United Kingdom’s Liam Fox, Kenya’s Amina Chawahir Mohamed Jibril, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri and Egypt’s Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, whocould not secure enough support in the second round of consultations. This turn of events makes Okonjo-Iweala Africa’s flag bearer. It also implies that the race to the global trade body slated for November 6, is now squarely between Africa and Asia.

To say that Africa has contributed significantly to the growth and development of international trade and commerce is to state the obvious. It is also a well-known fact that the continent despite her immense contributions has been completely left out in terms of policy directions across the globe. It was probably in the light of this and also the need to further boost trade within the continent that some efforts have been made, albeit by individual nations, to help the growth of trade in the continent.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act of the United States remains a striking example. Since its enactment in 2000, the AGOA has been at the core of U.S. economic policy and commercial engagement with Africa. The Act provides eligible sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free access to the U.S. market for over 1,800 products. This is in addition to the more than 5,000 products that are eligible for duty-free access under the Generalised System of Preferences programme.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

The continent on its own is also continuously making efforts towards growing trade among member nations. Little wonder the 55- member states of the Africa Union AU came up with the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement AfCFTA. When fully operational, this project, which enjoys considerable political support is expected to create a single continent-wide market for goods and services and to promote the movement of capital and natural persons.

Analysts have in the light of these facts argued that there could not be any better time than now for Africa to play prominent roles in issues that concern global trade policy formulation, having been kept at bay for a very long time, in over 25-year history of the global trade body.

For instance, the WTO officially commenced on 1 January 1995 under the Marrakesh Agreement, signed by 123 nations on 15 April 1994 to replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade GATT, which began in 1948. It is the largest international economic organisation in the world. From 1948 till date, no African arguably has ever played any significant role in both organisations. Available records show that from the inception of the GATT to date, the headship of the WTO has largely been dominated by the Europeans and to some extent, Asians. Available records show that in 1948, late Eric Wyndham-White from the United Kingdom first emerged the Executive Secretary of the GATT and later the Director General. He was succeeded in 1968 by Olivier Long, who left in 1980 to pave the way for emergence of Arthur Dunkel, who left in 1993. None of them is African.

On July 1,1993, Peter Sutherland, an Irishman, took over as DG of GATT and on January 1, 1995 became the DG of the WTO, which was sequel to the change from WATT-WTO in 1994. However, towards the end of 1995, Renato Ruggiero became the DG of the new world’s trade body and he held sway till 1999 when Mike Moore, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand took over the mantle of leadership, which ended in 2002. Supachchai Panitch Pkadi took over towards the end of 2002 and left in 2005. In the same year, Paschal Lamy, a French took over and was there till 2013 and on September 1, 2013, the incumbent DG, Roberto Avevedo became the CEO of the body. Avevedo, stepped down from his position in August 2020, one year ahead of the 2020 end of his second tenure.

Unarguably, Okonjo-Iweala is eminently qualified for the job, possessing an intimidating CV in terms of academic qualifications, experience and global political and economic contacts far and above her rival, Ms. Yoo Myung-hee, who is just a cabinet minister in the Republic of Korea. Experts have argued strongly that the DG of the WTO needs a combination of sound academic background, global experience and exposure and political contacts to effectively function, especially in the post-COVID-19 era. This is given the distortions the pandemic has created in the global trade arena and economy. In view of this, these experts believe strongly that Okonjo-Iweala possesses a right mix of these requirements that would drive the needed reforms and global trade policy adjustments needed for the post pandemic global economy.

They have argued that her professional/personal qualities, international contacts and impeccable records as Nigeria’s former Finance Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs stand her high above any other contestant.

A renowned global finance expert, an economist and international development professional with over 30 years of experience, Okonjo-Iweala is a former Managing Director of the World Bank, in charge of operations. She has also worked in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and North America.

Presently, she is the Chair of the Board of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. Since its creation in 2000, GAVI has immunised over 760 million children across the globe. She also sits on the boards of Standard Chartered Plc and Twitter Inc. She was recently appointed African Union Special Envoy to mobilise international financial support in the fight against COVID-19, as well as Envoy for the World Health Organisation’s access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.

It was probably in recognition of these sterling qualities as an astute administrator that the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund IMF, Ms. Kristalina Georgieva, recently appointed Okonjo-Iweala to serve as a member of her newly-established External Advisory Group.

In addition, Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s Finance minister, from 2003-2006 and 2011-2015 and briefly as Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs minister in 2006, the first woman to hold both positions.

She had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the number two position as the Managing Director (Operations).

It is on record that as Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Okonjo-Iweala steered Nigeria through the varying degrees of reforms, particularly on macroeconomic, trade, financial and real sector issues.

As Managing Director (Operations) of the World Bank, her several portfolios included oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe, and Central Asia.

Okonjo-Iweala spearheaded several World Bank’s initiatives to assist low-income countries during the 2008-2009 food crises and later in the trying period of the global financial crisis.

Only recently also, she was appointed a Special Envoy to the World Health Organisation WHO on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

While speaking recently on a cable TV interview, she believes she is more suitable for the job than her rival, assuring that she would bring a lot of reforms, international political and diplomatic exposures to the WTO when elected on November 6.

She believes that given her global credentials and experience as a development economist, she comes on board with robust experience and global political contacts and diplomacy, arguing that the WTO at this point in time needs a lot of reforms that would boost global trade and commerce, especially geared towards promoting digital economy, electronic- commerce as well as developing Small and Medium Scale Enterprises SMEs, and youths’ development.

“The whole essence of the WTO is to promote trade facilitation, and if there is trade blockade and restrictions among member nations, the organisation should promptly step in to resolve such differences to enhance trade”, she said.

On the face-off between the United States and China, which took a worsening dimension following the outbreak of the coronavirus and leading to trade restrictions, she noted that as the DG of the WTO, she would make concerted efforts towards building bridges. She further argued that building such bridges requires one with the right global contacts, one that understands both international politics and diplomacy, all of which she has in large stock, given her global exposure.

“Even if there are urgent economic reasons that justify such new tariffs and restrictions, they ought to be phased so as not to obstruct free flow of legitimate trade, a development the WTO needs to critically examine and make adjustments where necessary”, she also argued.

While reacting to the fears raised in some quarters that the African continent and other developing countries might be left behind in the post COVID-19 scheme of things in the world, she assured that the organisation under her watch would ensure that everyone is carried along in the interest of the global economy.

Meanwhile, officials of the Nigerian government have been speaking on the unflinching support the European Union EU, which experts have described severally as a positive development.

Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Chief Adeniyi Adebayo, while reacting to the EU support, said the former Finance Minister remains the best candidate for the WTO job.

“The Federal Government of Nigeria welcomes and appreciates the EU for its support and this signifies a high probability of her clinching the coveted position of DG of the WTO.

“With this latest support from the EU, Nigeria will do all that will be required to ensure Okonjo-Iweala, the candidate of choice for Africa, emerges as the next DG of the WTO”, the Minister also said.

When elected DG of WTO come November 6, Okonjo-Iweala will make history as the first African to clinch the job in the 72-year history of the GATT/WTO, and also the first female to achieve this feat. Till then, only time will tell.