By OBINNA EZUGWU
If all goes according to plan, Nigeria’s two time minister of finance, and former Managing Director, Operations at the World Bank, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, will emerge Director-General of the World Trade Organisation in what would be the latest feather in the 66-year-old’s cap of many feathers; an accomplished individual, woman of substance and a Harvard educated economist of global repute.
When last month, June, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari nominated the ex-minister as the country’s candidate for the WTO to job, it had come as a surprise to many, not just because the Buhari government had made a policy of vilifying the government of his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan and all who served in it, but also because the president has since established a pattern of considering only people from his religion and region for key jobs, both inside and outside the country, a pattern that has ensured that by many accounts, it has become the most nepotic government in the country’s history.
But in the case of Okonjo-Iweala, she simply proved too good to be ignored. And indeed, her choice was said to have been largely influenced by the United States which insisted on her being nominated for the position, apparently trusting her to be most qualified for it on the continent.
And while upon her nomination, she faced opposition from Egypt, one of the three African countries presenting candidates for the position – the other being Benin – she has overcome the hurdles and is now looking forward to the actual election next year with confidence knowing she has all it takes and all the necessary support from her continent and beyond. Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, in opposing the former minister, had argued that her nomination violated the WTO rules since Nigeria already had a candidate in Yonov Agah, whose candidature it withdrew to nominate her. According to el-Sisi, Nigeria, had, by withdrawing Agah’s candidature, forfeited its slot.
His position was subsequently supported by the African Union, whose office of legal counsel also argued that the former minister’s nomination violated its rules. The legal counsel had said the executive council during its 35th ordinary session held in Niamey, Niger, asked member countries to present candidates to the AU ministerial committee on candidature by November 30, 2019, to allow it endorse a consensus candidate at its February 2020 ordinary session.
But both attempts failed to halt the Nigerian amazon who, apparently supported by leading nations, is poised to make history as the first African to head the WTO. The Nigerian embassy and permanent mission to the African Union (AU) was the first to deflate AU’s argument, describing the continental body’s claim as “unguarded and failed all parameters of objectivity and unbiased submission.”
Amid the controversy, the WTO clarified that Okonjo-Iweala was eligible to run for office as its DG, and that according to its agreed procedures for the appointment of directors-general, a candidate only needs the backing of their country to vie for the office.
“Members shall have one month after the start of the appointment process to nominate candidates. Nominations shall be submitted by members only, and in respect of their own nationals,” a spokesperson of the WTO had clarified.
“The candidates nominated shall then have three months to make themselves known to members and to engage in discussions on the pertinent issues facing the organisation.”
With road cleared, the former minister soon began to get flurry of endorsements. On July 14, Benin Republic withdrew its own candidate, Eloi Laourou and backed her for the job. Nigeria’s West African neighbours took the decision in a letter addressed to the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations based in Geneva, Switzerland.
The country said it made the decision to withdraw its candidate after “consultations conducted by three African countries registered by the Summit of Heads of State and Government of the African Union on February 10 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the endorsement of a single candidate from Africa for the post of Director General of the WTO for the period 2021 – 2025.”
On June 28, the African Women Leaders Network also declared “unwavering support” for Dr Iweala, noting that the WTO is one of the few international organizations that has never been led by a woman, while emphasising in a statement announcing the endorsement, that her accomplishments are second to none.
“Her candidacy must be considered for her unquestionable knowledge, integrity, broad and relevant domain expertise, commitment to excellence and leadership track record in institutional reform and performance,” the women’s group said.
The group acknowledged her accomplishments, stating that the “highly accomplished African woman” should be elected to head the WTO at a time the world needs a global rules-based order.
“Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is an internationally renowned economist and international development expert, with experience in trade policy reform in her home country, as well as at the World Bank.”
The AWNL stressed that Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy is based on a stellar track record from steering the complex financial reform in Nigeria, as well as her demonstrated brokering, negotiation, technical and leadership competencies in private sector and development finance institutions and other processes.
The women group’s endorsement came on the heels of similar endorsement by West African sub-regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which also called on called on other African countries to back her.
ECOWAS, in a statement by its president, Mahamadou Issoufou, noted that the leadership of the body considered among others, Okonjo-Iweala’s established reputation as a fearless reformer, her excellent negotiating and political skills, andher experience of over 30 years.
“The ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government, takes note of the communication by the Chairman of the General Council of the World Trade Organization (WTO) announcing the commencement of a process for the appointment of a new Director-General of VVTO, with the opening and closing dates of nominations set as 8 June and 8 July 2020 respectively,” the body said.
“It takes into account that since the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on 1 January 1995, which is a successor to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) established on 1 January 1948, no African has assumed the position of Director-General of the Organization.
“Further notes that the Federal Republic of Nigeria has formally nominated Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-lweala for the position of Director-General of WTO for the period 2021-2025:
“Having acknowledged the strong academic and professional background of Dr. Okonjo-lweala and her very large experience in national affairs as Nigeria’s Finance Minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) and Nigeria’s Foreign Affairs Minister briefly in 2006;
“Having further acknowledged her long years of managerial experience at the top echelons of multilateral institutions, her established reputation as a fearless reformer, her excellent negotiating and political skills, her experience of over 30 years as a Development Economist with a long standing interest in trade, her excellent academic qualifications, her positions as Managing Director World Bank, and currently as Board Chair Gavi, and African Union Special Envoy to Mobilize Financial Resources for the fight against Covid19,
“Endorses the candidature of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-lweala for the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organization for the period 2021-2025; and calls on other African countries as well as non-African countries to endorse her candidature.”
Indeed, Okonjo-Iweala who had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, and served, two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria, first from 2003 to 2006 during the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, and second, from 2011 to 2015 President Goodluck Jonathan, at which time she was also coordinating minister of the economy, has earned all the accolades.
During her first tenure as minister, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the wiping out of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of $18 billion, a major accomplishment of the Obasanjo government. In 2003 she led efforts to improve Nigeria’s macroeconomic management, including the implementation of an oil-price based fiscal rule where revenues accruing above a reference benchmark oil price were saved in a special account, the Excess Crude Account, helping to reduce macroeconomic volatility.
She also introduced the practice of publishing monthly FAAC allocation to federal government, states and local governments, which has gone a long way in increasing transparency in governance, even as she was instrumental in helping Nigeria obtain its first ever sovereign credit rating (of BB minus) from Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s in 2006. She also established the Nigeria Sovereign Wealth Authority, NSWA, in 2013, to save and invest part of the country’s oil revenue.
His second stint as finance minister under Jonathan, from 2011 to 2015, saw even bigger feats. With the help of the World Bank and the IMF, she built an electronic financial management platform, the Government Integrated Financial Management and Information System (GIFMIS), which includes the now famous Treasury Single Account (TSA) and the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), both of which is helping to curtail corruption in the process.
To grow jobs and empower women and youths, she came up with innovative ideas that achieved results, even if moderately. The Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria Programme (GWIN); a gender responsive budgeting system helped to empower many a woman and youth. She was also the architect of the largely successful Youth Enterprise with Innovation programme (YouWIN), used to support entrepreneurs. It created thousands of jobs. YouWin has indeed been evaluated by the World Bank as one of the most effective programmes of its kind globally.
Yet, under her stewardship, the National Bureau of Statistics carried out a re-basing exercise of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the first time in 24 years, which saw Nigeria emerge as the largest economy in Africa. She as well made several efforts to rid the country of the unsustainable fuel subsidy regime, but was ultimately frustrated by the then opposition and the subsidy cabal, the story of which she detailed in her latest book, “Fighting Corruption is Dangerous,” published in 2018.
Indeed, her accomplishment were so tall and her record so untainted that even as the succeeding government of Buhari, which immediately set out to try and jail key members of the Jonathan government in the would be anti corruption war, she remained beyond reproach, clean and never found wanting.
And as further testimony to this, no sooner had she left office following the defeat of Jonathan in 2015, than she was poached by the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, chaired by Gordon Brown. She is also Co-chair of the Commission on the New Climate Economy, and was in the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders Foundation, the United Nations’ Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, among many others. And has, since 2019, been part of UNESCO’s International Commission on the Futures of Education, chaired by Sahle-Work Zewde, even as she is a member of South Africa’s Presidential Economic Advisory Council.
Few days ago, in June, the International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva appointed her to an external advisory group to provide input on policy challenges. Georgieva had noted that the financial body needed top-notch input and expertise from the widest range of sources, inside and outside the Fund.
A few weeks ago, she was also appointed by the AU as special envoy to solicit international support to help the continent deal with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.