Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, an African at the head of the WTO?

It’s a first. We now know with certainty that the World Trade Organization (WTO) will be headed by a woman. Seasoned economist and one of Nigeria’s most powerful women: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is at 66 one of two women vying for the next WTO Director General. In front of her, Yoo Myung-hee, current Minister of Commerce of South Korea. The two names were officially announced Thursday, October 8, by WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva. Indeed, in the long process of appointing the Director General, the 164 Member States agreed on the two finalists among the five candidates still in the running. Tuesday was decisive, since the European Union officially supported this duo, with Paris preferring the African candidate. The two women will soon be auditioned by the European Parliament.

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Around Africa?

Since then, support has multiplied in favor of Nigerian. The latest is none other than that of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who also chairs the African Union and who called on all member countries to throw their weight in the balance to give the WTO not only its first Director General, but also, for the first time, someone from the African continent. “At a time when it comes to giving new meaning to international organizations, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is the right person to reposition the WTO to make it an effective tool to foster a fair, equitable and based trading system. on rules, ”President Ramaphosa wrote in a statement. But who is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, this hard-working woman who is nicknamed “Okonjo Wahala”, which in Yoruba means “Okonjo the bother”!

Born in 1954 in Ogwashi-Ukwu, in the Niger Delta, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has spent the majority of her life in the United States, where she studied at two prestigious universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard with a thesis entitled: “Credit policy, rural financial markets and agricultural development in Nigeria”.

Twice Minister of Finance and Chief Diplomacy of Nigeria for two months, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala began her career at the World Bank in 1982, where she worked for 25 years. In 2012, she failed to become the president of this financial institution, facing the American-Korean Jim Yong Kim.

“I think she did a good job, whether in Nigeria or in the other countries where she worked,” Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Center for Democracy and Development, told AFP. “She’s not just loved in Nigeria, she’s adored, she’s a symbol […] for women, ”adds Ms. Hassan. A success that cannot be denied in the business world, even the Nigerian businessman Aliko Dankote, usually so discreet, publicly called to vote for the former minister. “In these difficult times, the WTO needs the sure skills and proven experience of Dr.r Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead the organization through the identified obstacles and strengthen its position as the main facilitator of international trade, ”said the Nigerian billionaire on his Twitter account.

If the WTO statutes do not provide for a geographical rotation for the Director General, voices are raised to say that it is the turn of an African or an African to occupy the post. More than ever for the support of the former Nigerian minister, in Geneva, at the headquarters of the World Trade Organization, she is quite simply the candidate whose institution, in full turmoil, “needs to improve its reputation” , reports the Politico website. “Far from the hostile polarization between Washington and Beijing which has put the WTO to a halt in recent months”, continues the news site, the institution would embrace “the African century much vaunted ”. This is the first time that Africa has fielded so many candidates to take the head of an international organization of this caliber. Before reaching the top of the list, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was competing with two other Africans, Egyptian Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh and Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s Minister of Sports.

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The Okonjo-Iweala surprise

A great revenge for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, whose candidacy is not unanimous, however. “Minister, she may have adopted some reforms on transparency, but nearly a billion dollars disappeared each month from the state coffers when she headed Finance”, explains to Agence France-Presse Sarah Chayes, author of Thieves of State (Thieves of the State, in English), an investigative book on large-scale corruption. “There is a thirst for positive stories, and at a time when questions of diversity arise in the public debate, being a black woman is in her favor”, concedes the American author, but according to her, it is “A shame that she could even be selected for this role”.

Okonjo-Iweala, however, has never been prosecuted for looting state coffers, even though her critics believe she could have done more to prevent embezzlement. “She could have resigned and exposed the corruption,” said Olanrewaju Suraju of Human and Environmental Development Agenda, a Nigerian NGO.

And to those who criticize her for lacking experience in international trade, she replies: “I have worked all my life on trade policies”, during a webinar organized in July by Chatham House, a British research center. “More than anything”, the head of the WTO must have “daring, courage”, she retorts, believing that the choice can not be made only on technical skills.

Appointed in July as special envoy of the African Union in the fight against the pandemic on the continent, Okonjo-Iweala has the difficult task of mobilizing international support to stem the global economic crisis which is hitting African countries hard. She is chair of the board of directors of Gavi Alliance, an organization that promotes access to immunization in Africa.

As President of the WTO, she will have a lot to do in a global context of economic crisis and crisis of confidence in the organization, at a time when the liberalization of globalized trade is hotly contested.

Washington, considering itself “unfairly” treated by the policeman of world trade, threatened to leave the organization, which it calls for overhaul, and since December paralyzes the appeals tribunal of its dispute settlement body.

The situation could of course change completely depending on the results of the presidential election on November 3, if Donald Trump is defeated by his Democratic opponent Joe Biden, who was Barack Obama’s vice-president for eight years.

According to her, the rise of protectionism and nationalism around the world has intensified with the crisis and barriers should be lowered to revive the economy. “One way to ensure a sufficient supply of vaccines and its equitable distribution is to remove certain barriers erected by laws on intellectual property and technology transfer”, she defends in the pages of the American magazine Foreign Affairs in April. The candidate selected to take the reins must be appointed after final negotiations at the beginning of November.

Read also Post-Covid-19: Africa takes the floor

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