In what is no longer news, Nigeria’s former Minister for Finance, Ngozi Okonji-Iweala, has been confirmed at the virtual special general council meeting as the new Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the first woman and first African to do so.
The near paralyzed global trade institution, which has been leaderless since Brazilian career diplomat Roberto Azevedo stepped down last August, a year ahead of schedule, is desperately in need of reinvigoration, something Okonjo-Iweala has addressed immediately after the announcement of her appointment.
Her appointment is coming at a critical time the 26-year old WTO is faced with multiple crises even before the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the global economy, weighed down by stalled trade talk and also struggled to manage the trade tensions between the United States and China.
During her interview with Time, Okonjo-Iweala said that global trade can help ease the Covid-19 pandemic, tackle climate change and restore faith in the system of cooperation that has faltered in recent years. She says that the WTO has a central role to play as a facilitator.
Following her appointment, the new WTO Director-General said she has been receiving a lot of congratulatory messages, amid a lot of excitement from both local and international groups and individuals with a lot of expectations.
This is as Nigeria as a country and intending global player hopes to derive some benefits from her new appointment especially with the take-off of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
While answering questions during an interview on benefits to Nigeria and women with Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment, 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, because her role as a DG of the World Trade Organization, the 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.
‘’But where you are not trading, where you have nothing to trade, where you are not doing anything whether its e-commerce or the other side of it, the most important thing is that if we want to benefit from her being the WTO Director-General, we need to up our game in terms of being productive. When we become productive and we have a lot to do, to sell and I think thats how her role will certainly benefit not just women but also you know all those engaged in global trade.
‘’There are so many things, unbelievable so many things that we can do in this country. There is nothing we cannot sell if only we get down and start being productive, you know the bulk of the problem we have, the lack of opportunities in this country is the fact that we are simply not productive, we are a consuming nation for goodness sake and until we change the pattern.’’
In their reaction, LCCI through its Director-General, 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.
He said for Nigeria to fully take advantage of the opportunities offered by her appointment as head of WTO, it is imperative to ensure the following:
- We need to build capacity for the international competitiveness of our products and services.
- Also imperative is the need to address trade facilitation issues, especially around port processes, ports infrastructures, international trade documentation, foreign exchange policies, trade policies and industrial policies.
- We need to promote local value addition and backward integration to strengthen the competitiveness of our domestic industries.
- We must undertake reforms of our tariff policy in accordance with the principles of comparative advantage, which would enable the country to optimise opportunities in the global trade arena and enhance the citizens’ welfare.
- It is critical to develop an AfCFTA strategy that would enable the country leverage trade opportunities both continentally and globally.
- There is need to improve on our strategy in managing the coronavirus pandemic ranging from ensuring compliance to safety protocols to vaccine procurement and distribution.
While the new WTO would not give any preferential treatment to Nigeria, it is important to note that if the nation is not ready to address its tariff policy in accordance with the principles of comparative advantage, Iweala’s appointment may not make any difference.