Why Ngozi Iweala’s WTO Nomination Matters

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ABUBAKAR ATIKU BAGUDU

GUEST COLUMNIST: ABUBAKAR ATIKU BAGUDU

That the world trade system has not worked well and with mixed result, is perhaps, an understatement. The dream of a cooperative system that benefit all countries is stunted by practices that limit trade, capital and Labour mobility. Countries, developed and developing agree on the need for such a system but in reality progress has been rather slow. This should not be so.

Attempts to create a trading arrangement that shall benefit all has been fraught with difficulties and the stronger nations tend to be most favored by current or even previous arrangement. The quest for advantageous trade led tragically to both slavery and colonialism, two horrible trade systems. Numerous wars, including World Wars I & II were caused to a large extent by trade considerations. While the current World Trade Organisation arrangement is a significant improvement, it is yet to achieve equitable progress, particularly for the weaker members.

Is it impossible for the world to create a trading system that works for all? Many think it is not, particularly for the obvious advantages it confers. But the reality has been that we are yet to achieve one. Following the end of the Second World War, institutions that could foster global cooperation were created to among others, reduce conflict causing behavior among nations. One of such is the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) the forerunner to the current World Trade Organisation which came into being in 1995.

The main objective in creating the World Trade Organisation is to create a trading system that is equitable and with least distortions. Regretably, while being an improvement on the GATT, the WTO is yet to deliver in achieving the objectives. Worst still is that it is perceived as impotent. The exit of UK from EU and the brick bratt between the US and China is illustrative of the difficulties with bilateral trade agreements talk less a global one. The failure of the WTO to reach an agreement on agriculture, for example is punitive to all of Africa.

Furthermore, the literal freezing of world trade occasioned by the Coronavirus Pandemic serve as a stark warning that we need to have a better trade system. Whoever imagined that one country can ‘’seize” medical supplies going to other countries?
Fixing the global trading system is one of the most important challenges of our time and doing so shall contribute to global prosperity more than any agreement. In so doing poverty shall be reduced and global prosperity shall be more equitably shared. Reforming the World Trade Organisation is at the heart of any of such quest, and thus the choice of the next leader of the organisation matters.

African countries have been committed to the WTO and have been patiently hopeful. The WTO Agreement was signed in 1995 at Marrakech in Morocco with many African countries being early signatories. Progress has been painstakingly slow with agreement of more equitable trade and agriculture on the table since 2001 it started in Doha, Qatar, known as Doha round.

In nominating our own Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, President Buhari is not just presenting a Nigerian Candidate but is presenting to the world one of its best, albeit from Nigeria, and one who is eminently qualified to lead the task of fixing the world trading system. An economist, international development expert and a global public servant, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is one candidate that come with all the experiences and expertise required to reposition the WTO. Both President Buhari and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala deserve commendation for giving the world the opportunity towards correcting the distortions in the world trading system.

It will be recalled that last year, President Buhari signed the African Free Trade Agreement which holds a lot of promise for Nigeria. Getting it right at the World Trade Organization shall hasten the goals of Africa in the global arena. With Dr. Okonjo-Iweala who is cut out for the job given her background, her achievements, her world view, who promotes the belief that a trading system can work for the benefit all, and truly that’s what the world needs, all nations and peoples committed to the promotion of equitable trading system should support her emergence as the Director-General of WTO.

As someone who practiced development economics at the World Bank, rising to the top and having served twice as Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, where she struggled with budget sizes below what the country’s potential demands and served two Presidents, who but apart from being of same Party, are opposites. She however was quite remarkable in serving both and providing the needed leadership for Nigeria’s economic policy. She sits on the board of the Gloval Alliance of Vaccines in Africa, which of recent was exposed to the fragility of the global trading system in securing and supporting countries which supplies support to COVID-19 response. Her experience in these fields equips her with the creative and modern perspectives that are required in navigating the uncertainties that will come in the post Covid-19 world.

I am privileged to have interacted with Dr. Okonjo-Iweala during her 2011 Senate confirmation hearings as Minister of Finance as well as the in a 2013 negotiation between the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal Government over the implementation of an agreement which led to closure of Universities for a long time. In both she was at her best. Not the least because she proudly wears Nigerian fabrics with a very unique fashionable sense that has been generating followers, as well drink West African Nescafe which she argues is as good as any out there.

Her negotiation skills are amazing. At one point during the negotiations with ASUU she was exasperated by insinuation from ASUU that she was not sympathetic to their views. The next day she turned up, very early in the morning, with one of their most remarkable members, Prof Okonjo, her dear father, of blessed memory. He assured the meeting and his obviously very surprised younger colleagues that not only is she sympathetic but that she is ASUU by blood and achievement, having spent most of her young life in the campus home of two dear Professors, mother and father!

At the WTO, which I pray she would lead, she will be able to bring the world of knowledge, creativity and value addition to the least developed world while at the same time mobilizing millions in poverty into the world trade system with over 100 million of them from Africa. She has the credentials to assure the more prosperous nations that they could be better off an institution that she leads while at the same time given confidence to the developing countries that their moment had arrived. That’s what is needed in the world: a win win situation.

I don’t know what the interview process entail but certainly the abilities of an Amazon who can bring over 400 million Africans, seeking to escape poverty and eager to equitably participate in the world trade system may not be matched by others.

Africa matters, not least because it remains the least developed continent but have a young and growing population that is willing to join the world. Equally African countries and indeed many other developing Countries have been responsible trading partners that give opportunity to others. They also seek more opportunities from others, and occasionally the two worlds may seem to differ in their views but Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is able to make the case for both. She is capable of energizing the World Trade Organisation and give confidence to all countries of the world that we shall be more prosperous together.

That in my humble view is why her nomination should matters to all of us and I urge that we should all promote it.
Thank you President Buhari for yet again demonstrating that you are always keen to promote the best, for the interest of all.
Ngozi is indeed one of them.

•Sen. Abubakar Atiku Bagudu Governor, Kebbi State and Chairman, Progressive Governors’ Forum