Why Africa wants Okonjo-Iweala to lead WTO

APA – Lagos (Nigeria)

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is poised to make history as the first woman and African to be the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) despite opposition from the United States.

On Wednesday, October 28, a key group of the WTO ambassadors proposed Okonjo-Iweala to lead the trade organisation. 

But as the world was awaiting the official pronouncement of Okonjo-Iweala as the first African and first female director-general of the international body in its 25-year history, the United States made it clear it was far from keen on her selection. 

Okonjo-Iweala as WTO supremo will benefit Africa immensely in the words of some Nigerian economists.

Her ascension will have coincided with the coming into being of the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) which will cover a market of 1.2 billion people and a gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.5 trillion.

She will be able to avail the new organization with all the necessary expertise for the smooth take-off and sustenance of the huge continental  market.  

Some hold that being the African head of WTO will not necessarily guarantee the continent any advantage which is not earned by merit.

But there may be a so-called domino effect.

As a body operating on consensus, Africa's trade advantages with the WTO may not be as straightforward as many would expect but having an African as its head will go a long way to command respect for countries on the continent especially when striking deals with the rest of the world.  

But Africa including Nigeria are not running ahead of themselves just yet after the United States said that it was throwing its weight behind the South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee for the position. 

Although Onkonjo-Iweala emerged the successful candidate for the job after the conclusion of the third round of consultations on Tuesday, October 27, by the group of ambassadors led by New Zealand’s Ambassador David Walker, the WTO’s 164 member states still need to determine whether they will support her before their next General Council meeting on November 9.

In expressing its support for Yoo, the US Trade Representative’s office heaped praises on the South Korean as a“ bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policymaker".

Washington says “she has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization”. 

“The WTO is badly in need of major reform. It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field. ”Washington already said it was opposed to her candidacy, casting doubt on whether she can obtain the necessary full backing from member states.”

However, many African governments and indeed other leaders of the Western World did not receive the opposition from the US as a surprise.

They have seen it before this year.

The Trump administration had poured scorn on the World Health Organisation (WHO) headed by an African from Ethiopia as the current coronavirus pandemic began hitting hard. 

The same scenario was played out in the election of the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) where the US is serving as a non-regional member of the bank and how it tried to frustrate the reelection of the President of the Bank, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina from Nigeria for a second tenure.

Despite the opposition from the US in Okonjo-Iweala's case, the Nigerian government has expressed its commitment to ensuring that she eventually emerge as the DG of the WTO.

To this end Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs ministry is wasting no time by being on a charm offensive with stakeholders.

After the first round of votes, Okonjo-Iweala is in pole position to succeed Roberto Azevêdo, who stepped down on August 31, a year ahead of the completion of his second four-year term in office.

Although Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has secured the support of the majority of WTO member countries, she is yet to be declared and returned the winner according to the organisation's procedures.

All 164 members must adopt the winner by a consensus.

It is important to highlight that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has secured cross-regional backing with only the United States opposing the consensus.

With the United States as its most important member, could Washington's opposition to her selection stop her from making history?

Will Abuja's charm offensive sweep Washington off its feet on the Okonjo-Iweala affair? Many do not see it happening within this short space of time when the vote is just days away.

While Nigeria may try to persuade Washington to support Okonjo-Iweala's bid, Africa's most populous country will also know that the majority will almost certainly carry the day especially if other African countries rally behind her.

It is decisive that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala secures overwhelming support of WTO members, both in terms of numbers and geographical spread.

Commenting on the development, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said a positive attitude would be maintained despite the hiccups.

“We move on to the next step on November 9, despite hiccups. We’re keeping the positivity going!”

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, graduated with an A.B. magna cum laude in Economics from Harvard University, and holds a PhD in Regional Economics and Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

She has received numerous honours, including Honorary Doctorates:

A development economist and a two-time former Finance Minister of Nigeria and Foreign Affairs Minister, Okonjo-Iweala has been the Board Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, since 1 January 2016.

She has also held several key positions at the World Bank, including as Managing Director.

She is currently a senior adviser at Lazard and serves on the boards of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Center for Global Development, among others. 

She is also the chair of African Risk Capacity, a specialised agency of the African Union to help member states prepare for and respond to extreme weather events and natural disasters.

She was named by Fortune magazine as one of the 50 greatest world leaders in 2015, and by Forbes for five consecutive years as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. 

In 2014, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was recognised by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

She is the author of several books, including Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria, published in 2012.


React to this article