By Stephen Ubanna
Between 2015 and 2016, during President Muhammadu, a retired army General, of the ruling All Progressive Congress, APC, first term in office, Ngozi Okonjo-Iwala, the 66 year-old, former minister of Finance and Coordinator of the Economy, under erstwhile Goodluck Jonathan Admnistration, had struggled to save his International image which was on trial in her home country, Nigeria.
She was alleged to have been involved in the $2billion arms Procurement Contract which had led to the arrest and detention of Dasuki Sambo, a retired army Colonel and a one-time National Security Adviser, NSA, to former President Jonathan.
Adams Oshiomhole, a former governor of Edo state and who had also served as the National Chairman of the APC, had accused her of being fully aware of the inconsistencies regarding the alleged fraud, particularly, how the recovered Abacha loot were spent.
One of the specific allegations against her by the Buhari regime was’’ the illegal diversion of the repatriated 322million from the Abacha loot’’. Oknonjo-Iweala, who could not take it had said that a decision was made by a Committee headed by the then President Jonathan to spend the $322 million repatriated Abacha loot on security issues because of the deadly BokoHaram Insurgency in the north east states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe.
Unknown to many, the Nigerian former minister of Finance and Coordinator of the Economy, may not have been bothered about such allegations as she, has an eye for a bigger pie, to be the Director General of World Trade Organisation, WTO.
When the Opportunity came for her to test her popularity to occupy the WTO, Director General, post, with the resignation of Roberto Azevedo, the North American country of Brazil, former Director General of the United Nations, UN, Trade agency last August, she did not hesitate to do so.
She was to have had the backing of the Katsina state born Nigerian President whose Party Chieftains had vilified her in his first term in office. She had won the WTO election as declared by the Organisation General Council Meeting in Geneva. But the opposition of the then Donald Trump Administration to her victory in favour of Yoo Myung-Lee, South Korea minister of Trade to head the agency may have stalled her inauguration as the Head of the WTO.
Aware that she may not get the same level of support from Biden-Harris Administration, which she had enjoined under Trump, to occupy the WTO Director General Post, Myung-Lee had no option but to withdraw from the race on February 5, 2021, thus paving the way for the Nigerian born Okonjo-Iweala, to become the first African and first woman to lead the embattled World Trade Organisation.
Trade experts believe that her decision to withdraw from the race may have given the US Trade Representative office which had remained a clog to the 164 member trade Organisation to select a Director General to linger. But the WTO , Governorship Council hope of selecting the Nigerian former minister of Finance and Coordinator or of the Economy, who incidentally was a former World Bank Vice President, may have brightened when Joe Biden, the US, President said the Administration ’’stands ready to engage in the next phase of the WTO, process for reaching a Consensus decision on the next WTO Director General, following Myung-Lee of South Korea withdrawal of her Candidacy for the post’’.
The US government was said to have assured the 164 member- nation Trade Organisation that ‘’it also looks forward to working to find paths to achieve necessary substantive and procedural reform of the WTO’’. Recall that the WTO Director General selection had commenced in 2020, following Azevedo, the immediate Director Genearal’s decision to step down from the position on August 31, 2020.
Eight Candidates from around the world were said to have participated in the race to become the seventh WTO’S Director General . However, following Consultations with member nations, the pool of Candidates jostling for the WTO position was scaled down from eight to five and further reduced to two, Oknojo –Iweala from Nigeria and Myung-Lee, from South Korea, to slug it out.
Dvid Walker, the WTO General Council Chairman, may have settled the fight, when he was said to have recommended Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian Candidate, as the next Director General as her Candidacy had enjoined wider support among the member nations. The then Trump Administration had objected to the Nigerian Candidate selection as the next Director General of the WTO, but was forced to review its position when many of its allies started supporting the Nigerian Candidate for the WTO , post.
This may have informed why the US government had to send a signal to the world Trading body Governing Council in January 2021, that ‘’the decision on the WTO Leadership was under active Consideration’’. The US government sudden change of position may have facilitated the resolution of the leadership crisis in the WTO.
Indeed, the WTO, Governing Council, announcement on Tuesday, February 15, 2021, was very clear : Ngozi Okonko-Iweala from Nigeria has been appointed as the next WTO ,Director General. The agency had said that with the appointment , okonjo-iweala,’’ has made history as the first woman and African to lead the Trade Organisation’. Also, it had tweeted that her term starts on 1st of March 2021 and ends in 2025.
A Statement by the by the WTO further shows that ‘’the decision to appoint the Nigerian Candidate at a Special Meeting of the General Council , following a selection process that included the eight Candidates from all over the world was taken on Tuesday , February 15, 2021.’’has put to rest the Leadership crisis of the Organisation’’. The WTO, General Council had said that the Nigerian Candidate have ‘’not only broken records but have constructed a different path for millions of African girls and women to imagine and re-imagine their future’’.
In apparent response to her appointment as the Director General of the 73 year –old ,General Agreement for Trade and Tariff, GATT and WTO, the Nigerian born Okonjo-Iweala had ‘’thanked the WTO members ‘’ for finalizing her election and making history’’.
Given the enormous tasks ahead of her, she had told the 164 member nation of the WTO that ‘’it’s been a long and tough road, full of uncertainty’’ noting that ‘’it is dawn of a new day and the real work can begin’’. She had said that ‘’the challenges facing the WTO, are numerous and tricky, but they are not insurmountable, stressing that that ‘’it is no longer going to be business as usual’’.
For now, she had placed as her first priority ‘’to address the conomic and health consequences brought about by the Wuhan Town, in Hebei Province of the Asian country of China emerged coronavirus, popular, COVID 19, pandemic.
She was said to have told those that cares to listen that ‘’ a strong WTO is vital if the world is to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation brought about by the COVID 19 pandemic’’. This may have informed why she had declared , ‘’I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses needed to get the global economy going again’’.
She is optimistic that the WTO would’’ be made stronger, more agile and better adapted for the realities of today’’. This may have informed why she had said that ‘’ global trade can help ease the COVID 19 pandemic pandemic, tackle Climate change and restore faith in the system of Cooperation that had faltered in recent years’’.
Many believe that Okonjo-Iiweala, is coming to Head the WTO, at a time,’’ the global trade body which was Created in 1995, to help settle trade disputes, write new trade rules and encourage the flow of goods and services worldwide was in shambles’’. The general impression of people about the trade Organisation was that past Director Generals and officials of the Organisation, had fallen short on several of those fronts, including failing ‘’to advance new trade Negotiations and adequately police unfair economic behavior from member nations, particular, China.
The worry of many was that at a time of growing global Protectionism and deep uncertainty for the global economy necessitated by the COVID 19, Pandemic , the WTO system of trade settlement remained crippled after the challenges from the Trump Administration. Trump, according to informed sources had blocked new appointments to the WTO’s appellate body, leaving it unable to rule on trade disputes and effectively giving the US Tariffs ,under Trump a free pass. Okonjo –Iweala, had said that the panel is due for change. This should serve as a good news to member nations who had looked, forward to such changes.
She has every reason to change the appellate body and the dispute settlement system because of the criticisms against it. . She has vowed to stand her foot down to ensure that the appellate body and dispute settlement system are reformed to a point where all member nations big and small, would believe and trust in the system and can use it’’. Until Trump left office last January, Okonjo-Iwala, had had already started looking beyond the Administration in running the Affairs of the WTO, for the next four years.
In a news conference on Monday, February 14, 2021, the WTO, Director General , had promised to work with other International Organisations ‘’to create rules for responding to the COVID 19 pandemic and making progress in two Negotiations over fisheries subsidies and digital trade’’.