Recently, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) appointed its first woman and first African director general, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Okonjo-Iweala takes the helm after the Biden administration endorsed her appointment earlier this month over Donald Trump’s candidate, South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee.
But Yoo pulled out of the WTO’s leadership race on 5 February – a decision which, she said, was made in “close consultation” with the US.
Many Nigerian have been making comments over the development allowing the WTO general council to secure consensus around Okonjo Iweala.
Ken Ife, an economist, says Iweala’s appointment will mean a better African representation on global trade issues.
“It’s a big blessing for Africa and Nigeria in particular because we’ll see how she’d help support the weaker countries have a voice. And also, some of the burning issues that are confronting us, we know that they’ll be on the table,” he said.
Economist Eze Onyekpere says one major challenge for the new WTO chief will be promoting liberal trade among countries that are trying to protect their COVID-19-hit economies.
“She will be tasked with bringing everybody back to the table to show that trade without all those hindrances and protections benefits everybody,” he said.
Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister, joined the race to head the WTO along with many others after former leader Roberto Azevêdo stepped down in August.
Her victory was slowed when former U.S. president Donald Trump refused to back her candidacy, despite huge support she had from other members, including China.
Experts say Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment could boost the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, which took effect last month.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an organization that regulates and facilitates trade between nations. It officially commenced operations on 1 January 1995, and is the world’s largest international economic organization, with 164 member states representing over 96% of global trade and global GDP.
The WTO facilitates trade in goods, services and intellectual property among participating countries by providing a framework for negotiating trade agreements, which usually aim to reduce or eliminate tariff quotas, and other restitutions; these agreements are signed by representatives of member governments and ratified by their legislatures.
The WTO also administers independent dispute resolution for enforcing participants’ adherence to trade agreements and resolving trade-related disputes. The organization prohibits discrimination between trading partners, but provides exceptions for environmental protection, national security, and other important goals.
But how can Africa and indeed Nigeria benefit from Iweala’s appointment?
In his reaction, the Director-General of Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dr. Muda Yusuf, stated that while the emergence of Dr Okonjo-Iweala as the new WTO Director-General is very gratifying and calls for celebration, there is a need to manage expectations around the outcomes for the Nigerian economy given the numerous productivity and competitive issues the country is grappling with, adding that ultimately, these are the factors that would determine the benefits that would accrue to the economy from global trade.
Nigeria’s former Consul General to the United States and former Permanent Secretary Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Joe Keshi, pointed out that the only way Nigeria as a country can benefit from her appointment is by being productive.
The former diplomat said, ”I need to make this point which I have made to a few who when we discuss, a few that I answered their questions yesterday who said to me how would Ngozi help Nigeria and I said no she will not help you. She will not help you unless you are productive, she will not help you except you have something to sell World Trade Organization is an organization that regulates global trade and except you have something to sell and you know put into the world market her role is to ensure that you get a fair deal and that you are not cheated in the whole process.”
His assertions are supported by Florie Lister, assistant U.S Trade Representative for Africa Affairs. For her trade is the key to long-term, sustainable economic growth and development in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Trade is critically important to economic development. Right now, Africa has about 2 percent of all world trade, which is hard to believe when you think about all of the tremendous resources that they have – oil, diamonds, gold … not to mention all the agricultural products such as coffee, tea, cocoa – and to think that Africa still only has 2 percent of world trade is really incredible.”
In other words, Africans must begin trading more with each other. “Africans trade the least with each other than all the other continents. It is improving. We are seeing a greater increase in intra-African trade, but,” Lister emphasized, “the reason that that is important is that you are unlikely to be competitive globally if you are not competitive regionally. So until they open their borders with each other and trade with each other, you are not going to get the level of competition that will allow them to be major providers of any product globally.”
For that reason, the United States strongly encourages all African countries to develop an “AGOA strategy” based on export promotion and competiveness, she said.
For now, Nigeria relies less on trade than the exportation of crude oil, the nation’s prime export. Due to worsening economic conditions, Nigeria’s production of goods and services has drastically nosedived, meaning that it even imports inanities such as toothpick and matches. Ecen if Iweala wants to assist Nigeria, the country has little to offer.
Perhaps Nigeria has to put her acts right before she can get any benefit from Okonjo Iweala’s appointment. But from the way things are going – herdsmen attacks, vigilante activities, abandonment of agricultural lands – Nigeria cannot really be helped, except her leaders and citizens rise up to the challenge facing them.