The former finance minister takes over at the WTO today as the Director General.
Her appointment did not come as a surprise and when Robert Azevedo relinquished his position last year from the post of director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the trade body’s top leadership position, former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became the favourite to replace him.
However, beyond the honeymoon of her recent appointment, there’s the need for the new WTO DG to set straight what has been crooked in the organization.
The World Trade Organization which came into effect on January 1st 1995 was established among other things to ensure balance of trade, ensure member nations are not shortchanged in the global trade pie and also ensure there’s fairness and equity in trade agreements.
Over the years however, there has been a disproportionate system that has increasingly sidelined low income countries and continue to place rich countries at an advantage.
The first great test will be in the resolution of disputes and not serving a particular interest. The new DG is known for her uncompromising stand against bullies. Even as Minister of Finance in the midst of politicians, she’s held her own and would often times speak out against State Governor’s lust for reckless spending.
The 66 year old will no doubt contend with the ever prevailing national interests and the subversion of policies wrapped up in the face of globalization, yet only favors few countries.
The composition of judges and the rise of nationalism in Europe is a great concern. Having an African at the helm of affairs at the World Trade Organization presents the much needed voice for policy makers and governments on the continent to set out and lay hold of the opportunities to let loose from burdensome trade deals and agreements that further isolate Africa.
In the meantime, the Covid-19 pandemic can serve as a litmus test for Dr Iweala, especially as the distribution of vaccines already showed that when it comes to life and death, high income countries will always seek to protect their interests.
While the UAE, Israel, United States, UK, Germany and Canada were able to successfully pay for vaccines and ensure speedy distribution, it became clear that African countries were not always going to be a part of the party as vaccines are still not accessible in many African countries.
Also, if an African country had moved ahead with mass production of vaccines through local manufacturing, are other countries going to buy? The way Russian manufacturers and Chinese vaccines lost big on the world stage in vaccine acceptance and distribution is a testament to the imbalance that already exists.
The task ahead is huge but definitely not surmountable. Iweala’s real advantage is the hope and support of all Africans which she must hold in order to guide her actions.