Apart from being the first woman to ever achieve this milestone, the name, Okonjo-Iweala will go down in history as the first African to assume the position of the Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Little wonder congratulatory messages came from all over the world when her WTO appointment was ratified. Due to resume duty as WTO DG on the first of March, Nigerians and Africans alike have expressed anxiety and high hopes in what such an appointment should mean for the home country and the continent at large.
On the one hand, Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment will be a double boost for Africa and for world trade especially at a time where the African Continental Free Trade Agreement landmark has just come into existence. For the WTO head, mobilising the power of global trade to help boost development in countries like Nigeria will be a key for success.
Nigeria typifies the vibrancy of nations with an essential role to play in growing Africa’s economy. A good number of successful Nigerians in the diaspora are thriving in business and the arts around the world, while at home, new generations of entrepreneurial Nigerians are embracing the possibilities afforded by digital technologies. The country boasts of 90 tech hubs, the most in Africa, and a flourishing community of start-ups that signals a promising way forward for a modern, diversified economy.
Upgrading the country’s infrastructure to accommodate the ambitions of its young wealth creators has been a key pillar of the incumbent Buhari administration’s growth plan. Nigeria has made serious efforts to pivot its economy away from oil, investing heavily in broadband coverage to boost the digital economy and append infrastructure projects like modern railways, the second Niger bridge to connect regional hubs to global value chains.
A more prosperous and inclusive future relies on trade cooperation between nations from across the development spectrum. The WTO’s ability to facilitate such trade links will be integral to the health of the Nigerian and by extension African economy.
Men have led the road of the WTO for decades, the opportunity to lead has now been given to a woman in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher’s words that, “if you want something said, ask a man, if you want something done, ask a woman.” There are high expectations of Okonjo-Iweala’s ability to salvage a beleaguered WTO from the global economic crisis wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, among other problems confronting it.
In the words of famous singer, Shakira, “it’s time for Africa”, as she is on a course of reliving the rhetoric of #AfricatotheWorld. A good number of people of black descent already occupy key positions in Joe Biden’s cabinet, considered by many as the most diversified a US administration has ever had.
The Joe Biden’s administration has ushered in a new government committed to achieving equity at all levels and around the world, irrespective of race, ethnicity, sex, and gender. It perhaps explains why the new administration eventually decided to move away from the position of the last government to back the candidacy of Okonjo-Iweala.
Economic analysts have also said Okonjo-Iweala makes a perfect candidate as a neutral personality. Okonjo-Iweala herself posits that she considers trade a driver of growth, development and improving living conditions. This according to her is the underlying blueprint of the WTO. But the battle between the United States and China over commercial hegemony has undermined that vital imprint. How Okonjo intends to go about stabilizing the US-China drift is something many people around the world are looking forward to.
US and China have always been in constant battle over economic dominance. The United States is weary that her country is losing most of her commercial prospects to China. This is further compounded by statistics showing that China is poised to overtake the US as world’s biggest economy in 2028.
Experts noted that this might have influenced US support for Okonjo-Iweala. There are worries in some quarters that she might just be a pawn in the game and will end up as a tool in the hands of the US government to establish their hegemony. Others are equally suspicious that in her tenure as DG, she might feel more “indebted” to the US government ahead of other WTO members. Keen observers have also noted that her administration might reinforce that American high-handedness in global trade.
For Africa, where most of her countries are underdeveloped, there are high expectations regarding the appointment of Okonjo-Iweala. In the words of Okonjo-Iweala, “Trade is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end; an instrument that helps deliver development so that those who have been marginalised can be brought in.”
But there are equally worries that Africa might continue to occupy a peripheral position in the scale of preference in the WTO’s attempt to come out of her beleaguered shell.
In the words of former World Bank economist, Ismail Lagardien; “To be absolutely clear: Okonjo-Iweala will head the WTO with the blessing of the US and the EU. It is not clear whether she received the blessing of the African Union or any of the mangled mess that is Africa’s regional organisations.”
“She will not represent Africa’s agenda, as some may expect, as she has to preside over the current global trade regime, so changing things at the WTO would be unimaginably difficult within one four-year term”, Lagardien added.
There is the local saying that you can tell a child that will go astray from early childhood. Many who are aware of her antecedents have expressed confidence that Okonjo-Iweala will not circumvent things or compromise her character, especially given her no-nonsense attitude to work.
There are also hopes that Okonjo-Iweala will show a keen interest in African prospects. To start with, the new WTO DG has promised to prioritize fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. This means a whole lot for Africa that is encumbered with the challenges of vaccine procurement.
The appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala should open a new chapter for the WTO. In the short term, the organization will have a key role in facilitating a more equitable distribution system for vaccines as the world wrestles with COVID-19. As a former Chair of the vaccine alliance, Gavi, whose COVAX scheme is leading efforts to ensure lower-income economies have access to vaccines, Dr Okonjo-Iweala is uniquely well placed to drive equity in WTO’s efforts in this area.
The expectations are high not only in Nigeria and Africa, but in other parts of the world as well. The World Trade Organisation needs the expertise of a qualified candidate to salvage it from the impact of the present pandemic.
The World Trade Organisation has since 1948 seen eight Director Generals from other parts of the world. It has gone several decades without a candidate of African descent occupying the position, let alone a woman. This new historical landmark will effectively change perspectives on Africa, and perhaps, we may have more WTO DGs coming from Africa in the nearest future.
Asides the WTO, it can help pave the way for Africans to occupy top positions in other international bodies and equally inspire women in Africa to aspire for higher positions of leadership.
Okonjo-Iweala’s new appointment should further inspire people of African descent, especially women, to believe that they can achieve anything if they can set their mind to it, and that it takes only hard work and self-discipline to attain such greater heights.