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Trade: Okonjo-Iweala Lifts Nigeria Global Image As She Makes History As The First Woman And African Director General Of WTO

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.

President Muhammadu Buhari: Backed Okonjo-Iweala for The WTO Job

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.  

Myung-Lee: South Korea Minister Of trade Withdrew From The WTO Race

 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’’.

Biden: US, President, helped To Resolve WTO Leader Crisis

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’’.  

Stephen Ubanna

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