Now That WTO Has Accepted Okonjo-Iweala’s Nomination

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

By Adedapo David Adamolekun

On June 9, 2020, the WTO communicated on its website that ‘Nigeria, on 9 June 2020, nominated Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the post of WTO Director-General to succeed the current Director-General, Mr Roberto Azevêdo, who has announced he will step down on 31 August 2020.’

The WTO’s acceptance and announcement of Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala came in the face of days of frenzied media speculations following the initial communication by President Muhammad Buhari on June 4, 2020 of the Government’s choice nominee. Concerns were raised that Nigeria might have lost her slot for nominating a candidate given the closure on 30 November, 2019 of the window set by the African Union.
Before pundits will restart another media spar on the correctness or otherwise of the WTO’s acceptance of Dr Okonjo-Iweala candidacy, let’s see what the WTO Procedures say regarding the nomination process.

WTO Procedures
In a letter by David Walker, Chairman of the WTO General Council, dated 20 May, 2020 and available on the Organisation’s website, on the ‘Appointment of the Next Director-General: Communication from Chairman of the General Council to Members’, he shared some of the milestones for the appointment process as set out in the WTO Procedures.

Furthermore, Mr Walker clarified key administrative details relating to the nominations and provision of supporting information, viz:
“The appointment process will start on Monday 8 June 2020. In line with the Procedures, Members shall have one month after the start of the appointment process to nominate candidates. i.e. from 8 June to 8 July 2020. All nominations and supporting information must be addressed to me, as Chairman of the General Council, and must be received by 8 July 2020 at cob in Geneva. In line with the Procedures, the nominations and supporting information will be distributed to Members as they are received. Nominations and supporting information should be addressed to: Chairman of the General Council World Trade Organization – WTO 154 Rue de Lausanne 1211 Geneva 2 Switzerland.”

It is imperative to understand that nowhere in the Procedures was it required that WTO member countries needed to first go through any regional bloc to submit nominations; or seek the endorsement of individual member countries to put out candidates for the position of the Organisation’s Director-General. It then beggars the question why it became an issue that Nigeria had risked the displeasure of some countries by an ostensible tardy submission of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination on 4 June, or even 9 June 2020 when same was received and accepted by the WTO.

Clearly, President Muhammadu Buhari acted in full compliance of the WTO Procedures in submitting Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination; and well ahead of the schedule too, since the deadline is still four weeks away, 8 July 2020 precisely. But all that speculations are behind us for good now.

What should now be of primary interest to Nigeria and her friends is how to seize the moment and leverage on the golden opportunity to ensure the election of the first African, first woman, the region’s finest, and the globally acclaimed Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as WTO next Director-General.

Why Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Two developments in the past 12 months will be of seismic importance for the next generations of the African continent: the realisation of the need to proactively manage catastrophes such as the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters and the start of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA). In terms of the former, the world has strongly put its weight behind one of Africa’s egalitarian daughters, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Through her leadership of the GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, world leaders have pledged an additional US$ 8.8 billion far exceeding the target of US$ 7.4 billion. These significant sums will see over 300 million children immunised over the next five years, including the creation and distribution of the COVID vaccine; the largest investment in immunisation ever made by lower-income countries mostly in Africa.

The success at GAVI sets the stage for the next challenge, ACFTA, the most ambitious trade zone project in the world. The brilliance of the African Union Heads of States requires a collective ambition matched with global clout and outstanding diplomatic skills. No other region has tried to weld 54 countries into a single market and eventually a full customs union. It also flies in the face of the waves of nationalism, protectionism and populism surging around the world. The execution of which requires the experience for such negotiations can be gleaned from Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s successful debt cancellation of 60% of Nigeria’s external debt ($18 billion) with the Paris Club. The debt deal also included an innovative buy-back mechanism that wiped out Nigeria’s Paris Club debt and reduced the country’s external indebtedness from $35 billion to $5 billion. More on this below.

At the beginning of the year, while the United Kingdom was finally divorcing itself from the European Union, a group of almost twenty African heads of states were invited to London. The purpose of the visit was to cement the trading relationship between the two continents. Similar advancements have been made by the French, Chinese and Russians to name but a few. The battle for the hearts and minds of the continent is heating up. This highlights the fact that the global trade conversation has moved from the periphery for the continent. In that regard, a steady and recognisable hand is required to steer the global dialogue.

Brains and Mettle
The rationale for her candidacy is transparent. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a global finance expert, an economist and international development professional with over 30 years of experience working in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America. She is Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Since its creation in 2000, Gavi has immunized 760 million children globally and saved thirteen million lives. She sits on the Boards of Standard Chartered PLC and Twitter Inc.

She was recently appointed as African Union (AU) Special Envoy to mobilise International financial support for the fight against COVID-19 and WHO Special Envoy for Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator. She is a skilled negotiator and has brokered numerous agreements which have produced win-win outcomes in negotiations. She is regarded as an effective consensus builder and an honest broker enjoying the trust and confidence of governments and other stakeholders.

Previously, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala twice served as Nigeria’s Finance Minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) and briefly acted as Foreign Minister in 2006, the first woman to hold both positions. She distinguished herself by carrying out major reforms which improved the effectiveness of these two Ministries and the functioning of the government machinery. She had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the No. 2 position of Managing Director, Operations. As a development economist and Finance Minister, Dr Okonjo-Iweala steered her country through various reforms ranging from macroeconomic to trade, financial and real sector issues.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a firm believer in the power of trade to lift developing countries out of poverty and assist them to achieve robust economic growth and sustainable development. As Finance Minister, she was involved in trade negotiations with other West African countries and contributed to the overhaul of Nigeria’s trade policy enabling it to enhance its competitiveness. She has closely followed developments at the WTO, as she believes that a strengthened multilateral trading system is in the interests of all countries, particularly least developed and African countries.

As Managing Director of the World Bank, she had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. Dr Okonjo-Iweala spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during the 2008-2009 food crisis and later during the financial crisis. In 2010, she was Chair of the World Bank’s successful drive to raise $49.3 billion in grants and low interest credit for the poorest countries in the world.

As Minister of Finance in Nigeria, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club of Creditors that led to the wiping out of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of $18 billion. In her second term as Finance Minister, Dr Okonjo-Iweala was responsible for leading reform that enhanced transparency of government accounts and strengthened institutions against corruption, including the implementation of the GIFMS (Government Integrated Financial Management System), the IPPMS (Integrated Personnel and Payroll Management System), and the TSA (Treasury Single Accounts).

Additionally, Dr Okonjo-Iweala is currently Chair of the Board of the African Union’s African Risk Capacity (ARC), an innovative weather-based insurance mechanism for African countries; and co-Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate with Lord Nicholas Stern and Mr Paul Polman. She is also Chair of the Board of the Nelson Mandela Institution, an umbrella body for the African Institutes of Science and Technology, and Chair of the Board of the African University of Science and Technology, Abuja. Dr Okonjo-Iweala is a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She presently serves on the following advisory boards or groups – the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Harvard University International Advisory Board, the Oxford University Martin School Advisory Council, Mercy Corps International Advisory Board, Women’s World Banking Africa Advisory Board, the International Commission on Financing Global Education (Chaired by Gordon Brown), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) Advisory Board, Tsinghua University Beijing – School of Public Policy and Management Global Advisory Board, the CARICOM (Caribbean) Commission on the Economy, the Bloomberg Task Force on Fiscal Policy for Health, and Tax Inspectors Without Borders of the OECD among others. The list continues.

A Sling Shot Needed
Considering the eminent qualification and robust of mettle of Nigeria’s nominee for the WTO top job, it is evident that the noble objective of the African Union to create a single continental market, through ACFTA, for goods and services, with free movement of business persons and investments will receive a great boost with a purpose-driven leadership at the World Trade Organisation, such as Ngozi Okonj0-Iweala can provide.

Also, there have been calls for the WTO to update its rules and commitment to make them fit with the modern 21st century economy; substantially dependent on services, digitization and cross-border flows that are different from the goods-trade flows that currently define the institution. The argument is that since the Uruguay Round in 1994, which came into effect in 1995 bringing in trade in services and intellectual property for the first time, the WTO hasn’t produced any big achievements and may be progressively losing its attractiveness.

Therefore, as the world aims to ‘build back better’ in the era following COVID-19, the WTO needs a savvy bridge builder, bold reformer and an astute global citizen who will bring much needed acumen for a predictable, transparent, non-discriminatory and open global trading system which is essential for broad-based, sustainable economic recovery. It makes sense that Africa strongly rallies behind Nigeria and join forces with the global community in electing Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director Director-General of the World Trade Organisation.

Adamolekun writes from Geneva, Switzerland