Nigeria’s former Coordinating Minister for the Economy under President Goodluck Jonathan, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is optimistic about being appointed as the next Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Her optimism is not limited to the endorsements she got from President Muhammadu Buhari , National Assembly (Senate and House of Representatives) and Economic Community for the West African States but the confidence that she has what it takes to become the first African and female WTO DG since the global trade force was established in 1995.
While pitching for the post in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday, two-time Nigeria’s Finance Minister shared her vision with the WTO’s 164 member states. Along with Okonjo-Iweala, seven other candidates also pitched for the job. as they presented themselves to the members of the global trade body. The other candidates are Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt), Amina Mohamed (Kenya), Jesús Kuri (Mexico), Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova), Yoo Myung-hee (Korea), Mohammad Al-Tuwaijri (Saudi Arabia), and Liam Fox (UK).
Speaking at the meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on Wednesday, the former World Bank director said she has all it takes to become the first African and first female DG of the global trade force established in 1995.
‘I am a bundle of talents’
Contrary to the allegation that she is more of a public sector, she said, “WTO needs leadership and it needs someone able to bring a bundle of qualities – political ability and ability to reach decision-makers. International contacts, I have that. Managerial capability from my long years in a multilateral organisation like the World Bank. The ability to forge consensus, to negotiate, a reformer. I have an established reputation as a strong reformer both at the World Bank and also in my country. I’ve even written a book about it.
“So, I think together I bring a bundle of qualities – public sector, private sector – because you need to know how do businesses see the WTO and what needs to be done. What about micro-medium and small enterprises? Just to find out what it means to be a small-medium enterprise owner, I started one myself in Nigeria to see what are the obstacles in the way that you need to clear out.
“So, I’m a doer. I’m solution-oriented and pragmatic. I bring together the bundle of qualities and the leadership acumen that you need to lead this. So, I would hope that if selected from the African continent, it should be me.”
To critics that alleged that Okonjo-Iweala is more of a financial sector expert and inexperienced in Trade, she described such as a ‘wrong notion.’ She said:
“I am a strong believer in the role of trade and of the MTS to lift millions out of poverty and bring shared prosperity. Throughout my career as a development economist at the World Bank, I worked on tough economic policy reforms including trade policy in middle and low-income countries. As a two time and longest-serving Finance Minister in my country, I had the Customs Service reporting to me, so issues of trade facilitation and trade policy were squarely part of my remit. Together with the Trade Minister, I also worked on regional trade issues including the ECOWAS Common External Tariffs.
“I can bring a fresh pair of eyes to the WTO’s challenges. Enhancing and renewing the organization will require recalling the core objectives and principles on which the MTS was built – the value of open trade, competition and non-discrimination, security and predictability of market access, fair trade and transparency. These principles contribute to economic growth and development. I have seen how essential and powerful trade can be in promoting not only economic growth and development but also, with the right incentives and policies, fostering inclusiveness of women and youth involved in entrepreneurial activities through micro, small and middle-sized enterprises.”
On how she intends to address challenges that have eaten deep into the fabrics of the global trade body, she explained that the first hurdle to tackle would be to build trust among the membership. She said,
“Current problems are not solely of a technical nature, some require political solutions. Throughout my career, I have been involved in difficult negotiations with high political stakes including debt relief negotiations with both the Paris and London clubs. I have brokered numerous agreements that have produced win-win outcomes.
“A good example is during the 2008–2009 food crisis when large wheat exporting countries imposed export restrictions- driving up the price of bread and other wheat-based products in a large number of developing countries. As Managing Director of the World Bank, I flew to one leading exporter, met with the leadership and over several meetings and negotiations, I persuaded them to remove the export restrictions. The affected developing countries benefited by having access to wheat and wheat products thereby ensuring their food security, while the country imposing the restrictions also benefited from increased export prices.”
Her vision for WTO
With the support from Aid for Trade initiative, her vision is to negotiate outcomes that would help developing countries, particularly the least developed countries, to increase their participation in the trading system, improve their policy environments, and ensure that trade makes a strong contribution to their sustainable development and inclusion in the MTS.
“I want to conclude by reiterating the importance of the WTO at this critical, uncertain and challenging time in the world. The WTO is needed to ensure trade and global markets remain open. Its convening power and ability to provide a unique forum where countries can come together around shared interests is still vital,” she added.
DG’s Selection process
General Council Chair, David Walker of New Zealand had informed WTO members of nominations as soon as they were received. After 8 July, Walker issued to members a consolidated list of all candidates, which led to the on-going pitch process with the members at a special General Council meeting.
In all, only time will tell if history will be made after the selection process. History can be made if Okonjo-Iweala is selected as the first female or African DG or if any of the other three African candidates are selcted.