24th March, 2021
By Kayode Adebiyi
The Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said the organisation would work to deliver technical assistance and training for African countries to overcome their trade challenges.
Okonjo-Iweala gave the assurance at a meeting with Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment Adeniyi Adebayo and Minister of State Mariam Katagum, as part of her five-day working visit to Nigeria.
The WTO is the only global international organisation dealing with the rules of trade among nations and on Feb. 16, it made history when its General Council selected Okonjo-Iweala as its seventh director-general.
Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance and former Managing Director of the World Bank, became the first women and first African to emerge as WTO’s director-general on March 1.
Here are five potential areas Africa can benefit from Okonjo-Iweala’s five-year (renewable) term as head of the world’s apex multi-lateral trade negotiating body:
First, the leadership of world’s top economic institutions has been dominated by the U.S. and the European Union. The U.S. always leads the World Bank, while head of the IMF has always been European. This ha changed.
Okonjo-Iweala’s emergence as director-general of the organisation was received with so much excitement and expectations in Africa because, for the first time, an African and a woman has been selected to head the WTO.
Three Africans were in the race for WTO leadership — Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed and Egypt’s Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh — before the long selection process narrowed it down to two candidates.
Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. threw its weight behind South Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee against the consensus candidacy of Okonjo-Iweala.
However, following the withdrawal of Yoo from the race, President Joe Biden expressed strong support for the candidacy of Okonjo-Iweala, giving the African continent a powerful voice in the league of international economic institutions.
As the head of the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala also automatically has a seat at the G-7 and G-20 meetings.
Also, in her first statement since confirmed head of WTO, Dr Okonjo-Iweala said one of her immediate priorities was to rally members for a more robust response to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again,’’ Okonjo-Iweala said.
As a continent, African has some of the least infection and mortality cases of COVID-19 but suffers some of its greatest economic consequences.
As head of the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala can help facilitate inclusive global economic response and provide policy direction capable of reducing the COVID-19 vaccine nationalism being peddled by rich member countries.
Already, she has promised increased contribution by the WTO in the solutions of vaccines therapeutics and diagnostics, especially to poor countries.
Similarly, Africa has opportunity for increased global trade. Africa is responsible for three per cent of global trade and much of that is in extractive commodities such as crude oil and other natural resources.
Interestingly, the continent has some of the fastest-growing economies in the world; three of the top five fastest growing economies globally are in Africa.
However, one of the biggest challenges faced by African countries in global trade is that African countries trade drastically little among themselves.
To boost trade within the continent, an ambitious trade policy, known as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), was established. When fully functional, AfCFTA has the potential to become the world’s largest free-trade area.
AfCFTA rules and guidelines are very compatible with those of the WTO, thus an African head of the global trade organisation can play a role in providing vital technical and policy support.
Besides these, there are more roles for women and youths. In 2020, Dr Okonjo-Iweala, then a candidate, told the BBC that as head of the WTO, she would increase the participation of women and youths in global trade to drive economic growth.
“I want to figure out how to get women and youth, who are behind these engines of growth in Africa, to benefit more from world trade,’’ she said.
She added that one way of achieving that goal was ensuring that the continent moved away from exporting raw materials and instead add value to the products produced for the global market.
African has the highest youth population in the world, estimated at 226 million (one-fifth of the world’s youth population) by the United Nations.
Prioritising the involvement of women also means more grassroots participation in global trade, as women in the continent are most responsible for grassroots development.
In addition, one of the arguments critics advance against the WTO is its tough stance on its small members (mostly developing countries) and weak posture when it comes to big players such as the EU, U.S. and China.
As the chief negotiator in what is the biggest trade dispute of this generation, Okonjo-Iweala’s position can bring some extra benefits to Africa from both ends of the negotiating table.
Both China and the U.S. have significant investments and huge interests in the continent and the head of WTO can influence decisions that take the interests of the continent into account.