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Now That Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Is WTO DG…

February 17, 2021 | Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes
Written by Tolu Okunade

It’s official.

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala — one of the points of pride of the nation and the jewels of the continent has been appointed the Director-General of the World Trade Organization. Like her other roles, she is a first at this too. She is the first woman and the first African to head the organization. Previously, she spent a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, scaling the ranks to the Number 2 position of Managing Director, Operations (2007–2011). She also served two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria (2003–2006, 2011–2015) under President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Goodluck Jonathan respectively. She was the first woman to serve as the country’s finance minister, the first woman to serve in that office twice, and the only finance minister to have served under two different presidents.

During her first stint as Minister of Finance under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the wiping out of US$30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of US$18 billion. In 2003 she led efforts to improve Nigeria’s macroeconomic management including the implementation of an oil-price based fiscal rule where revenues accruing above a reference benchmark oil price were saved in a special account, “The Excess Crude Account” which helped to reduce macroeconomic volatility. In January 2016, she was appointed the Chair-elect of the Board of Gavi, In 2020, she was appointed a Special Envoy to Mobilize International Economic Support for The Continental Fight Against COVID-19 by the African Union. 

Famous for her Ankara dresses and her distinct style of tying her headgear, she once worked as a cook for rebels on the frontlines in the 1967–70 civil war between Nigeria and Biafra. With the popular focus on her gender, race, and country of origin, overlooked could be her competency and expertise, regularly demonstrated during her career at the World Bank and twice as Nigeria’s finance minister.

However, this appointment did not come on a platter of gold. The former Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo, announced last May that he would leave the job a year early and departed in August of 2020. Though a huge majority of the organization’s members supported Dr Okonjo-Iweala to replace him, the then-Trump administration officials did not. And Because the WTO operates based on consensus, the latter effectively vetoed her in favour of the current South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. The former US trade representative Robert E. Lighthizer didn’t support her, citing she was from the World Bank who does development” with no “real trade experience.” 

Dr Okonjo-Iweala sees trade as a motor for growth, development and raising living standards, which she points out was in the original remit of the WTO. That has long been relegated behind battles over commercial dispute resolution and geopolitical rivalries between China and the United States. That explained Trump and Lighthizer’s opposition to her. Their view of trade is mercantilist: maximise exports, minimise imports in the cause of economic nationalism.

Nonetheless, at a virtual special general council meeting of the WTO on the 15th of February 2021, all member states officially selected the former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank veteran as the global trade body’s new director-general. She will take up her post on March 1 and her renewable term will run until August 31, 2025.

What Can the World Expect from Her?

First, she would have to lead the charge for a revival of multilateralism. This would be done inthe negotiation chambers of the WTO and for a better deal for developing economies, as well as for the practical matter of how reforming trade and patent rules can allow the distribution of life-saving vaccines and therapeutics as the coronavirus pandemic rips across the world on its second wave.

Surely this must be the worst time to take over an organisation dedicated to multilateral trade agreements, The Africa Reportasked Okonjo-Iweala during the campaign. “Multilateralism has never been needed more than now,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that this is the time we need to act in solidarity to have multilateral solutions because there are simply some things in the world that bilateral or even sub-regional solutions cannot solve.”

On the distribution of vaccines and drugs to fight the pandemic, Okonjo-Iweala said she would prioritize open access: “Being involved in COVID-19 and vaccines now as the chair of GAVI and an envoy on the Act accelerator, I’m seeing it from the front lines and we want to make sure that we don’t have a situation where access to vaccines for other countries where they are not made is blocked … The world is so interconnected now that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and no country is safe until all countries are safe.”

There is also the growing consensus that the World Trade Organization has failed to police some of China’s worst economic offences, which many in the United States consider the world’s biggest trade challenge today. And there is deep uncertainty about whether the group can be overhauled to address those shortcomings. Under Donald Trump’s administration, the United States went all out against the WTO for enabling the rise of China. Brexit revealed tensions in Europe around the terms of free trade and open borders. Dr Okonjo-Iweala plans to take on the challenge of mending loopholes that have gaped for too long, to reform WTO’s dispute resolution system and make it work for all member states.

Her appointment would also remove a key obstacle to the functioning of the World Trade Organization, which has been leaderless during a time of growing protectionism and global economic upheaval brought about by the pandemic. Trade negotiations, including an effort to restrain harmful subsidies given to the fishing industry, have dragged on without resolution. A key part of the organization for settling trade disputes, called the appellate body, remains crippled after the Trump administration blocked appointments of new personnel. She would also be able to solve the deep divisions over whether rich and poor countries should receive different treatment under global trade rules.

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