Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

…Buhari, Atiku, OPEC congratulate former minister

The Lagos Chamber of Commerce & Industry (LCCI), among others have tasked the newly Director-General of World Trade Organization (WTO) Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to address major economy crisis in Nigeria and Africa countries amid COVID-19 challenges.

The former Minister of Finance whose appointment takes effect from March 1, 2021 made history as the first woman and first African to lead the WTO since its formation in 1995 replacing the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which commenced in 1948.

Okonjo-Iweala’s election follows months of deadlocked discussions among WTO members on who should be chosen as the next D-G.

The former WTO chief, Roberto Azevedo, stepped down in August, a year earlier than his second four-year term was set to end.

The delays in the appointment of WTO chief reportedly stemmed from the reluctance of former U.S. president, Donald Trump, to approve the Nigerian economist’s candidacy.

The Trump administration favoured South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee.

However, after Joe Biden assumed the presidency, the South Korean minister decided to quit the race paving the way for Okonjo-Iweala’s selection.

The LCCI has urged African governments to shore up their capacity for international competitiveness to fully harness the opportunities offered by the WTO.

The Director-General, LCCI, Dr Muda Yusuf said this in a congratulatory message emailed to newsmen on Monday following Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s emergence as the D-G of the WTO.

Yusuf said that Okonjo-Iweala’s emergence was at a time when the global trading system was faced with numerous challenges including supply chain disruptions precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Other challenges, Yusuf added, were rising protectionism and unilateralism, growing economic nationalism, imposition of trade restrictions covering substantial amount of international trade, as well as trust and credibility concerns among members.

Yusuf said that Africa had peculiar challenges in the global trade arena with the continent deeply integrated into the global supply chain.

This, he said, underscored the low participation level of African economies in international trade.

“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 competitiveness issues the country is grappling with.

“It is a great delight being the first female and first African to head the WTO since its formation in 1995 replacing the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which commenced in 1948].

“According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Africa’s trade with the global community between 2015 and 2017 stood at an average of $760.1 billion, compared with Asia ($6.8 trillion), America ($5.1 trillion) and Europe ($4.1trillion).

“These numbers indicate that Africa is not a major player in global trade and Nigeria’s share in global trade is even more insignificant,” he said.

According to him, it is very pertinent for African economies to build capacity within the continent in order to take advantage of the opportunities in global trade.

“Nigeria’s export structure is still largely dependent on crude oil, which accounts for about 50 per cent of government revenue and 90 per cent of foreign exchange earnings.

“More importantly, Nigeria’s non-oil exports are largely primary commodities with little or zero value addition. Thus, the prospects of tapping international trade opportunities remains dim,” he added.

Yusuf said it was imperative to address trade facilitation issues especially around trade policies, port processes, international trade documentation and foreign exchange policies to fully take advantage of the opportunities offered by the WTO under its new DG.

He stressed the need to promote local value addition and backward integration to strengthen competitiveness of the nation’s domestic industries.

“We must undertake reforms of our tariff policy in accordance with the principles of comparative advantage, which would enable the country optimise opportunities in the global trade arena and enhance the citizens’ welfare.

“It is critical to develop an Africa Continental Free Trade Area strategy that would enable the country leverage trade opportunities both continentally and globally.

“There is a need to improve on our strategy in managing the coronavirus pandemic ranging from ensuring compliance to safety protocols to vaccine procurement and distribution.

“Ultimately, these are the factors that would determine the benefits that would accrue to the economy from global trade,” Yusuf said.

An economist, Eze Igweogboffia said the WTO has not recorded a lot of success in resolving trade issues but the ability to negotiate and encourage cross border trading especially at a time when the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) had been signed by most African countries including Nigeria would open up trade opportunities for African countries.

“Okonjo Iweala’s role will be to advise and negotiate favourable trade terms for African Countries. The terms of trade between Africa and the rest of the world has always been skewed in favour of the West and even the East.

“We hope that Okonjo-Iweala begins to renegotiate these unfavourable terms of trade to make African produce and resources more competitive in the global market.”

Also, President African Centre for Emprical Dialecticsm, Comrade Araka Okolie-Aboh in a chat with Nigerian NewsDirect said,  “Africa has always had a well defined system of government and political administration, well structured system if governance and public management just as it were in Europe and other parts of the world.

“The African Political economy was been based in wealth distribution via communalism and little of capitalism which is a system of individual ownership.”

“The coming of Dr Okonjo iwela will make her the first person from our soil to occupy such strategic office in the world. It is soul lifting and she deserves our celebration keeping in mind she will add her best in liberating African Economy.

“Strategically, the appointment will help to redirect the African Economy especially that of Nigeria to move from a consuming economy to a producing economy.”

Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari has felicitated with former Minister of Finance and Economy on her election as D-G of the WTO.

By the victory, Buhari said Okonjo-Iweala has brought joy and more honour to the country.

The President’s congratulatory message is contained in a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, in Abuja on Monday.

According to him, as the Harvard-educated and renowned economist takes up another onerous task of service to the world and humanity.

“Her track record of integrity, diligence and passion for development will continue to yield positive results and rewards to mankind,’’ the President said.

Buhari affirmed that Okonjo-Iweala, who over the years set major records of economic reforms in Nigeria as Minister of Finance, and later Minister of Foreign Affairs, would excel in her new position.

He expressed the hope that the former Nigerian minister would validate the global mandate of repositioning and strengthening the multilateral institution for the greater good of all.

The president joined family, friends and colleagues in wishing Okonjo-Iweala well in her new endeavour.

Also, Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar congratulated Dr. Okonjo-Iweala for her emergence as the first female and African D-G of the WTO.

Abubakar in a statement signed by himself said Okonjo-Iweala was well known to him and “not  hyperbole” when he said that no one could be more qualified for the job of D-G of  WTO than her.

He described her as an apostle of free trade and astute manager of people and resources, adding that the world would be much more prosperous with her recent elevation.

“As the world prepares to emerge from the global pandemic of COVID19, the planet needs a steady hand at the wheel, to drive global trade, and rebuild from the devastation wrought by the virus.

“We would not need someone who thinks they can pull this off. We would need someone who has actually and serially pulled it off before. And that person has emerged,” he said.

Abubakar said that Africa and Nigeria remain proud of Okonjo-Iweala. He said his family was full of joy at her victory, saying, “Go to Geneva and make us proud, as we know you will.”

In addition, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has congratulated Dr Okonjo-Iweala, on her appointment as the D-G of the WTO.

The OPEC Secretary-General, Dr Barkindo Mohammad, in a congratulatory message said, “On behalf of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, allow me to formally extend our sincere and heartfelt congratulations to Your Excellency on your fully deserved appointment as the newly elected Director-General of the World Trade Organisation.

“We wish you every success in your new role leading the WTO, a key organisation for the effective functioning of the global economy, and in helping trade flow as freely as possible.

“We commend the wisdom of the General Council of the WTO for the historic nature of your appointment, as you are the first woman and first person from the continent of Africa, to take up the reins of the organisation.

“The breadth of support that Your Excellency received during this campaign is testimony to your suitability for the role and lifetime of public service to both our beloved home country, Nigeria, and the international community,’’ he said.

Mohammad noted that Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy received support from every geographical region and all categories of  members recognised in the WTO provisions.

According to him, the appointment comes at an extremely challenging time for the world and the WTO.

“Global trade has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, support for the multilateral system needs to be bolstered and the WTO, under your leadership, will embark on a period of substantive and procedural reform.

“However, I know from your lengthy and successful career as a highly-respected economist, an international development expert who worked for 25 years at the World Bank, a diplomat and your two terms as Finance Minister in Nigeria that you are more than up to the task.

“Yours is a career replete with achievements,” he added.

Mohammad  recalled when in 2005, as Minister of Finance for Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala, successfully led a team that negotiated an 18 billion dollar debt write-off with the Paris Club.

This, he said, enabled Nigeria to obtain its first-ever sovereign-debt rating.

“At the World Bank, you fronted several initiatives that supported low-income countries, including raising almost 50 billion dollars  from donors in an aid campaign for the International Development Association.

“Your leadership capabilities, your deep knowledge and your astute judgement and negotiating skills, will be warmly welcomed at the WTO.

“You have continuously conducted yourself with the highest standards of professionalism, honesty, integrity and courage. I can think of no one better for the position.

“It is also an extremely proud day for our home country of Nigeria, and the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, who recognised your distinctive and impressive credentials for the role and campaigned tirelessly in talking with world leaders to seek support for your candidacy.

“I am sure your appointment is being lauded across the whole of Nigeria,’’ he said.

Mohammad said that the historic nature of Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment would  inspire women and girls across the globe to become more involved in trade related professions and aspire to leadership positions in international organisations.

“As an inter-governmental association, OPEC is a proud member of the multilateral system. We are continuously exploring opportunities to strengthen our relations with like-minded international organisations who share our values.

“In this regard, I look forward to having an opportunity to discuss in person the possibilities of enhancing relations between the WTO and OPEC.

“For supporters of multi-nationalism everywhere, it is reassuring to know that your capable hands are now guiding the WTO,’’ he said.