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As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes over as WTO boss

Much to the relief of the world, President Joe Biden of the United States of America removed his government’s objection, paving way for the long-awaited…

Much to the relief of the world, President Joe Biden of the United States of America removed his government’s objection, paving way for the long-awaited formal appointment of Nigeria’s Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s quest also received a major boost when her main challenger, South Korea’s trade minister Yoo Myung-hee, who had been supported by President Donald Trump’s administration, withdrew from the race.

Late last year when it seemed clear that Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, having won the overwhelming endorsement of majority of the member states was set to take over as chief executive of the global body, President Donald Trump, citing “lack of experience in trade matters’’,  withheld its approval for Mrs Iweala, virtually stalling her appointment. A tense stand-off followed as the US stood almost alone against the world in opposition to Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s ascension to the director-generalship of the world body.

But with the election of President Biden at the November presidential elections in the US and his pledge to discontinue President Trump’s policy of ambivalence towards international institutions, hope was rekindled that global agencies such as the WTO will once again get back into reckoning with the USA.

In Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, the world could not have picked a better personality to head the WTO, which is one of the pillars of world trade and commerce at this critical juncture of global economic challenges.

She is a former minister of finance in Nigeria, where she drove through very crucial economic reforms that stabilised the country’s external debt profile and restored its confidence with international lending institutions. Before then Mrs Iweala had worked with the World Bank, following her graduation from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University as an Economist. At the World Bank, she rose to become the institution’s second-ranked official, a clear testimony to her qualities and ability to navigate through the often tough and challenging world of international finance.

The challenges that come with her new job as WTO boss may look familiar and similar, but in the current situation of global economic downturn occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic, she has her work cut out. Global trade is sluggish and many economies, including the major ones, are experiencing recession.  In view of this development, many countries are resorting to protectionist measures to protect their economies, thereby jeopardising the painstaking measures put together to promote global trade.

In this regard, one of the major issues that Mrs Okonjo- Iweala will have to contend with is the continuing spat over trade and commercial issues between the US and China, the two biggest economies in the world. The two economies hold the largest chunk of world trade and continuing disagreements between them will likely affect world trade.

Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s pledge to reform the processes and procedures of the WTO and to promote synergy in tackling global health and public finance issues will resonate positively if she carries through her vow successfully.

There is also the very important issue of helping the world devastated by the scourge of the global Covid-19 to grow out of it as a spur for the revival of world trade and commerce now in near-comatose mode.

As someone who has navigated successfully through the world of public finance in her stint both in the World Bank and as Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, coupled with her membership on the board of GAVI, one of the global agencies trying to promote the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala ticks the right boxes.

For us in Africa and the emerging economies, while we take pride in presenting her as one of our best products to the world, it will be more gratifying to see a situation where under Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as WTO boss there is greater inclusion of developing economies in world trade and commerce. Specifically, Africa would love to see the WTO under her watch robustly support the recently launched Africa free trade Continental Agreement (AfCTA) to promote inter-African trade and commerce.

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