By OBINNA EZUGWU
Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on paper is the ideal candidate for the Director General of the World Trade Organisation. With the experience of a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, enviable track record as two-time minister of finance in Nigeria, she comes prepared. But even as her record can easily speak for her quest to emerge ahead of eight other candidates for the position early next year, she is taking no chances. She has decided to take her campaign to the four corners of the globe and her message is simple: “I am the woman for the job.”
In a well articulated ad now running on a number of international media platforms, Dr. Iweala passes her message unequivocally: “Trade is a force for good, I have seen it with my own eyes,” she says. “It’s the ability to improve millions and millions of lives. I spent my life working with teams around the world to deliver reforms, broker agreements, improve systems, fight corruption and empower economies.
“Coronavirus has changed the face of the global economy, and left many countries facing difficult choices. This is a critical moment for world trade and the WTO has a vital role to play. It’s time to come together. It’s time for the WTO to listen to its members, seek common grounds, haunt for solutions, rebuild trust and return to its founding mission. My name is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and I’m the woman for this job. I want to bring a fresh pair of eyes and ears to the WTO, and make fit to thrive for the 21st century.”
And speaking on Hard Talk, an interview programme of the BBC last week, she makes her point further, ” I think, the WTO at this time, it’s not about the technical qualifications or technical negotiating skills, if that’s what they needed, they would have solved the problem long ago because there are many skilled negotiators. It cannot be business as usual for the WTO. They need someone who can break through the impasse; someone willing to do the reforms that are needed.”
Since its inception in January 1995 as a replacement for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which commenced in 1948, WTO has boosted international trade by facilitating same and removing barriers. But a look at the structure and component of international trade over the years shows that it hasn’t simply worked for Africa with its growing current account deficit, increasing debt burden and the resultant poverty. In the 25 years of the organisation, no African has managed to rise to its head”.
Dr. Iweala, though not the only candidatefrom the continent – as there are two others: Amina Mohammed from Kenya and Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh from Egypt – stands a good chance of being the first to do so. And is perhaps more qualified than anyone else to lead the effort towards turning things around in this respect; a point made more eloquently by Patrick Lumumba, a Kenyan lawyer and popular anti corruption crusader.
Speaking during an interview with Osasu Igbinedion on The Osasu Show, Lumumba whose compatriot, Mohammed, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Heritage and Culture, is also running for the WTO job, made it clear that Iweala is simply Africa’s best and brightest chance.
“Right now, there is the WTO; Okonjo-Iweala is the candidate we should back, given her credentials. Now, a Kenyan candidate has emerged, an Egyptian candidate has emerged – we are going to be manipulated and none of the Africans is going to get it,” he said.
“We’ve got to learn to do things properly as a continent. And when we do that, we’ll be stronger and ultimately, our populations would benefit from it.”
Lumumba’s credit is perhaps to whom it is most due. Iweala is an accomplished individual, a woman of substance and a Harvard educated economist of global repute. She has been behind practically every commendable economic feat achieved by Nigeria in the past two decades.
During her first tenure as minister, from 2003 to 2006, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the write off of $30 billion Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of $18 billion, a major accomplishment of the Obasanjo government.
Within the same period, 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 (ECA), helping thus, to reduce macroeconomic volatility.
Still, it was her who introduced the practice of publishing monthly FAAC allocation to federal government, states and local governments, an innovation that has gone a long way to increase transparency in governance. Yet, she was instrumental in assisting Nigeria to obtain its first ever sovereign credit rating from Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s in 2006.
Her second stint as finance minister under Goodluck Jonathan, from 2011 to 2015, saw even bigger feats. In 2013, she established the Nigerian Sovereign Wealth Authority (NSWA) to save and invest part of the country’s oil revenue. Again, 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), including the now touted Treasury Single Account (TSA) and the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), both of which are helping to curtail corruption.
Iweala’s empowerment programmes remain the most far-reaching and most impactful till date. She came up with innovative ideas that achieved results, such as the Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria Programme (GWIN); a gender responsive budgeting system that helped to empower many women and youths. She also initiated the largely successful Youth Enterprise with Innovation programme (YouWIN) which helped to create youth entrepreneurs in the country; a programme that has indeed been evaluated by the World Bank as one of the most effective programmes of its kind the world over.
Still, under her stewardship, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) carried out a re-basing exercise of Nigeria’s GDP for the first time in 24 years, which saw the country emerge the largest economy in Africa. She, as well, made several efforts to rid the country of the unsustainable fuel subsidy regime. Sadly, however, she was frustrated by the then opposition and the subsidy cabal.
Her accomplishments didn’t escape the prying eyes of outsiders. Hardly had she left office following the defeat of Jonathan in 2015, when she was called up by the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. Among other portfolios, she has also been co-chair of the Commission on the New Climate Economy, 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.
Since 2019, she has 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.
And in what looks to be a final warm up for the WTO job, in June, IMF’s Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva appointed her to an external advisory Group to provide input on policy challenges. Indeed, her path to Geneva, Switzerland, headquarters of the Trade Organization is clearing by the day.
Although she faced some obstacles upon her nomination by President Muhammadu Buhari, by way of opposition by Egypt – the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi, had in opposing the former minister, argued that her nomination violated the WTO rules since Nigeria already had a candidate in Yonov Agah, whose candidature it withdrew to nominate her- she has continued to overcome.
The former minister has since been getting 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.
This was followed by similar endorsement by West African sub-regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which also called on other African countries to back her. ECOWAS had 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, and her experience of over 30 years.
Yet, days after, African Women Leaders Network also declared “unwavering support” for her, noting that the WTO is one of the few international organizations that have never been led by a woman, while emphasising in a statement announcing the endorsement, that her accomplishments are second to none.