Okonjo-Iweala: Triumph of the African woman

The emergence of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former finance minister and coordinator of the economy in Nigeria, as the Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is an achievement of a lifetime, which many have described as the triumph of the African Woman.

Though it was a long walk to that Olympian height for the celebrated economist, it is of great interest for us and for Nigeria that one of us has joined other leading global women including the 56-year-old Kamala Harris, the first female vice president of the US, and the 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, the first National Youth Poet Laureate, to blaze the trail in various fields.

Okonjo-Iweala deserves all the accolades. We salute her courage to dare, and also admire her success at the ‘poles’ despite the initial strong opposition from powerful forces within the organization.

She is not new to exalted and tasking positions having served at the World Bank; the board chairperson at global vaccine alliance (Gavi). She was also selected to join the board of Twitter in June 2018. But it is pertinent for us to point out to the new DG that there is much work to do at WTO.

With challenges arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, US-China stand-off, among other matters that may arise, Okonjo-Iweala certainly has a lot on her plate. However, we believe that she can rise to the occasion.

As part of her first steps forward, she is expected to swiftly demonstrate her capacity to unite countries whose relationships have been strained due to ‘bad blood’ engendered mainly during President Donald Trump’s administration.

As the trade organization plans to have its first ministerial conference under her regime, it is most likely she will be saddled with intense responsibility to prove, between now and December 2021, when the meeting will hold, that she is indeed the expected ‘deliverer,’ especially as WTO has existed without a director-general since Roberto Azevedo left.

The coming of Okojo-Iweala with her intimidating resume and work experience is, to say the least, a huge plus for the trade organization. And she feels sure-footed in her new assignment.

When, in an attempt to undermine her, Robert Lighthizer, former US Trade Representative, told the Financial Times, “We need a person who actually knows trade, not somebody from the World Bank who does development,” she had a ready response to that misconception.

“I am a development economist and you cannot do that without looking at trade. I helped my country’s negotiation with my trade minister on the ECOWAS common external tariffs. I don’t know how much more trade you can have than that,” she said.

Continuing, she said, “so those who say I don’t have trade, they are mistaken. I think the qualities I have are even better, because I combine development economics with trade knowledge, along with finance, and you need those combination of skills to lead the WTO. I think I have the skills that are needed. I am a trade person.”

It is expected that her reign would be an opportunity to tweak the approach to concerns mediators have argued about over the years. It raises hope for Africa as it opens the opportunity for the continent’s strategic representation in governance and global bargains.

Daring to tread the path commonly trodden by men, in our view, reinforces the common maxim that what a man can do; a woman can do better when given the opportunity.

We believe that Okonjo-Iweala is capable and is certainly up to the task. Prior to this position, she had noted that the WTO had not been able to complete multi-lateral negotiations for some time, and that the dispute settlement system that underpins it has been paralysed.

She noted further that its rules needed to be updated to account for modern 21st Century challenges like the digital and green economy. These observations speak volume of one with keen interest and overt knowledge of the workings of the trade organization.

According to her, the organization also needs to work to be more inclusive, to take account of micro, medium and small enterprises and women. We are in the middle of Covid-19; the WTO has rules that could actually help smaller and poorer countries access vaccines and medical equipment.

This means that Okonjo-Iweala’s emergence as WTO DG is not only a triumph of the black woman, but also increased relevance of Africa as a continent, and growth opportunity for the micro, medium and small enterprises. We are all the more happy with these. For Africa and the world, the future is today.

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