Okonjo-Iweala Rallies Nigeria to Increase Trade, Improve Economy

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•Pledges WTO’s collaboration
•Urges transition away from fossil fuel
•Her record of performance earned her the job, says Buhari

By Deji Elumoye, Ndubuisi Francis and James Emejo

The visiting Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has expressed WTO’s willingness to assist the country in surmounting limitations to trade in order to increase its global share of commerce and boost its economy, pointing out that agriculture could also boost Nigeria’s share of African trade, currently at about 19 per cent.

Okonjo-Iweala in her first working visit since she came into office also spoke on ARISE NEWS Channel, the broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspapers, and admonished Nigeria to begin to transit from fossil fuel as the world is moving in the direction of cleaner energy.

She urged the country to exploit the huge potential in the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) to increase its share of the world trade, stressing that Nigeria’s 0.33 per cent share of global trade is poor.

Receiving her at the Presidential Villa, Abuja yesterday, President Muhammadu Buhari attributed her emergence as WTO DG to her past record of performance both locally and internationally.

Speaking during separate visits to the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Chief Adeniyi Adebayo, and his Finance, Budget and National Planning counterpart, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, Okonjo-Iweala expressed WTO’s willingness to assist the country in surmounting limitations to trade in order to increase its global share of commerce.

To achieve that, the former minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance called for value addition to Nigeria’s huge agricultural products for export.

Speaking during separate visits to the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Otunba Adeniyi Adebayo and his Finance, Budget and National Planning counterpart, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, the WTO DG observed that the 0.33 per cent share of world trade is just a small fraction of the nation’s potential.

In his remarks while being hosted by Adebayo, she said: “Nigeria’s share in world trade is 0.33 per cent. This is a very small fraction of what we could do. Our share in African trade is 19 per cent, a little bit higher and below our share of Africa GDP, which is almost a quarter of Africa’s GDP.

“What this means is that we can either look at it negatively or say it is a small portion of what world trade is, or we can turn it around and say it is a glass half full, optimistic side, and say that there is potential for us to do much more. That’s the message I want to convey to the country and Mr. President.

“This means we must step up our action on the economy. We must strive to do better and harder in several ways. The reason we are concerned about that is our youth. Majority of our population are young people who are looking for jobs.”

She added that trade could be instrumental to job creation and economic growth with value addition to products and good logistics to deliver trade.

She stressed: “What I am going to say without going into details is the fact that Nigeria really needs to focus on adding value and repositioning.”

Okonjo-Iweala further lamented that Nigeria currently ranks 103 out of 167 counties in terms of logistics.

Commending Nigeria for signing on to AfCFTA, the former minister noted that Nigeria accounts for 19 per cent of Africa’s trade, adding that the country could do much better.

While admitting that there are difficulties and challenges with Nigeria’s economy, she called for greater urgency to forge ahead as the nation is imbued with the potential to do much better. According to her, trade is a very strong part of that narrative.

According to her, the WTO can work with Nigeria to help deliver support directly, not only with their own resources in technical assistance, training and quality of products, but also with other institutions to remove some of the bottlenecks confronting commerce.

She said WTO is about supporting investments and supporting infrastructure in technical assistance, adding that although it is not a financial institution, it works with financial institutions.

She stated that the world is moving away from fossil fuel.

The WTO DG called on Nigeria to urgently transit from fossil fuel to renewable energy, saying: “Before we know it, everywhere will be electric cars. So, not only because of trade, but it’s existential for us as a country that we begin to think about what we have.”

Urging Nigerians not to despair over the current difficulties, she admonished that the focus should be to identify those areas where there is potential and turn the economy in that direction.

Her visit, she said, was to thank the federal government and all Nigerians for the overwhelming support they gave without which she would not have emerged as the WTO DG as well as to sort out where the organisation could support investments.

While receiving Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Adebayo congratulated her on her appointment and highlighted the country’s expectations regarding engagements in ongoing negotiations and discussions.

On the ongoing agriculture negotiation, he said Nigeria expects balance and equitable outcome that addresses structural causes of food and livelihood insecurity in Net Food Importing Developing Countries (NFIDC) and Least Developed Countries (LDC).

On the Fishery Subsidy Negotiations, Adebayo stated that the country looks forward to outcomes that result in a reduction in overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices with effective differential treatment that allows a sustainable development of developing countries.

Also, the Minister of State for Industry Trade and Investment, Mrs. Maryam Katagum, urged the WTO DG not to forget the commitment to sustain and enhance the ongoing dialogue and action on women in trade – as a firm believer in the power of trade to lift developing countries, including Nigeria, out of poverty.

During her visit to the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Ahmed, the WTO DG noted that Nigeria has a diversified economy that can actually benefit all, if there are investments in it, not just in goods, or agriculture, but also services.

In her remarks, Ahmed called for WTO’s support to enable Nigeria to leverage on bio-economic resources.

Explaining that although it is not new, there has been too much dependence on fossil fuel, lamenting that “crude contributes significantly to the extent that whichever way the market swings to, that’s the situation we will find ourselves and it is unhealthy.”

According to her, Nigeria’s gas emissions are very minimal compared to global emissions.

Addressing State House correspondents after visiting President Buhari, Okonjo-Iweala stressed that despite the organisation’s concern about Nigeria’s exchange rate, it would in no way affect the nation’s economic diversification moves.

She explained that the body was concerned with the exchange rate regime obtainable in Nigeria, saying some member countries of the organisation had laid formal complaints before the WTO.

She said: “WTO has one of the agreements of the balance of payments, and Nigeria certainly invoked this to be able to conserve foreign exchange through its book list article. But some other members have brought a complaint against us that we shouldn’t have used this article in that way. So yes, the WTO is concerned about foreign exchange, the way we manage it, the way we use it and how we use it to support manufacturing or imports and exports in our economy.

“And I think that in discussion with them, the complaints about the exchange rate regime, and we tried to explain. I shouldn’t say we because I’m now DG WTO, it is for Nigeria’s representative to explain to the WTO to those members complaining why we’re doing this, but eventually, I think having a strong exchange rate and being able to phase out of this, I think we’ll be heading in that direction. We’re also going to see the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, and will undoubtedly discuss some of these issues.”

She also allayed fears that embracing the free trade policy of the world body would harm Nigeria’s economic diversification drive.

Okonjo-Iweala affirmed that special and differential treatment could be applied to prevent vulnerable countries from collapsing under competition.

She added that the special treatment would not be forever as such countries would have to eventually open up for competition.
She also said duties could be applied to imports to prevent the country from being a dumping ground.

Buhari had earlier while hosting Okonjo-Iweala, told her that despite the robust support Nigeria gave to her candidacy for the position, “You also earned it. We are happy you made it, but you earned it with your record of performance both at home and abroad.”

The president said Okonjo-Iweala was putting Nigeria more on the world map, “and I congratulate you, as well as the country. I know you will represent us so well.” Buhari lauded Nigerian women once again, pointing to key positions they hold like Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, and many others.

He said it is the same way, the government would encourage the youths, “so that they can be ready for the challenges of the future.”

The new WTO DG thanked the president for the pulsating support she received from her own country in the race for the position.

“You nominated me, you wrote hundreds of letters, called up hundreds of world leaders. Without your personal and direct intervention, it may not have worked. The people of Nigeria also supported me massively. The youths were wonderful, always encouraging, backing me up on social media. “Mr President, the world recognises what you have done. Since its establishment, only men have led the WTO. Now, a woman has emerged for the first time, and she’s a Nigerian. We are so honoured,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

She apprised the president of the opportunities for Nigeria in the global organisation, as well as the challenges, stressing that “WTO will do more to help Nigeria, but we need to add value to our products in order to trade more. We should exploit all the opportunities in front of us.”

Okonjo-Iweala added that the support and leadership of Buhari will help her a lot in her position as DG.

Urges FG to Begin Transition Away from Fossil Fuel

However, Okonjo-Iweala told ARISE NEWS Channel that it was time for Nigeria to begin the transition away from fossil fuels as the world is shifting to renewable energy.

She said: “The fact that fossil fuels are being phased out in the world as every country is announcing that as from 2025, 2030, 3040, they would no longer allow the use of fossil fuels; they would not allow cars that burn petrol and is all moving to electric cars and renewables.

“This is huge for the Nigerian economy. It means we’ve to begin thinking of the transition now. Gas is our transition fuel. Some of us are trying to argue for a little more time for countries that depend on gas to have a transition period.

“But it’s inevitably, the way the world is going, we’ve to transition out. And what does that mean? That means we’ve to start thinking what other sectors of the economy are going to bring in revenue to enable us to support imports and exports and create jobs because we’re very dependent on the oil and gas sector now.”

She also identified some key challenges facing the organisation, indicating that resolving some of them before the next ministerial meeting in December was being pursued.

She listed the challenges to include putting in place an arbitration mechanism, bringing some member countries to make a compromise on certain positions they had taken and updating the organisation’s rules, among others.

She said: “Well, I met an excellent staff at the WTO. They are very technically qualified and I met many ambassadors in the membership who are trying to do their best to negotiate, but the challenge we have is that decisions taken by members overtime on certain issues have become entrenched.

“We are trying to discuss with them to be more flexible so that we can finish some of the negotiations – for example on fisheries subsidies. We have negotiations going on because this will help the sustainability of fishing and oceans. Everybody needs, including our own artisanal fishermen and women. And so, that’s one challenge of coaxing and trying to bring countries to make a compromise on positions they have already taken.

“We should manage to do that before the next ministerial conference at the beginning of December so that we can get an agreement.”
She identified another challenge as trying to get the WTO to contribute more to the availability of vaccines.

According to her, “You know they are traded products – to allow a freer flow of medical products to contribute to the availability of vaccines. That’s the WTO could do more through its rule still.

“A third area is the dispute settlement system of the WTO, which has been paralysed for some years, and in a rule-making organisation you need a place where violations of the rules can be arbitrated among members. So, we need to reform that.

“And above all, we also need the WTO to update its rules on e-commerce. E-commerce is now huge and the rules that underpin it to make it a level-playing field for all the actors like our young people have not yet been put in place.

“Finally, the WTO also has challenges to update its rules to help micro, medium and small enterprises and women in trade; bring in those who are excluded and marginalised so that we can improve inequality both in the developing countries as well as the developed.”