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Okonjo-Iweala: Africa’s Meal Ticket at WTO?


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Unarguably, expectations are high across Africa following the emergence of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

For a continent that has struggled over the years to be relevant in the world market, it is a big deal that one of its own will now sit at the `head of the table’ where critical decisions are taken.


“To say her appointment has raised hopes on the continent would be an understatement,” says Toyin Umesiri, a U.S.-based international trade expert and convener of the Annual Trade with Africa Business Summit in the United States.

“The region has been clamouring for a transition from foreign aid to trade dominance, and to them the question is whether her appointment would help shift them further in that direction and what type of transformation (if any) they should expect.

“The truth is that African nations would make demands on her and the WTO. They will seek her support to advance trade in the region which in a way is good because Africa has yet to secure maximum benefit from the institution or leverage all the negotiating facilities it presents,” Umesiri wrote in a blog post.

When she assumes office on March 1, Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian Minister of Finance and Vice President of the World Bank, will make history as the first female and African to head the global trade body.

The stakes are very high. At one end, the womenfolk is counting on her good representation. At another, `Mama Africa’ is eagerly looking up to her not only to protect and advance her interests in the global market, but also to prove to the rest of the world that something `good can come out of Bethlehem.’

The pressure is on already. Since the WTO announced her appointment on February 15, individuals, organisations, groups and even governments in the continent have been listing their expectations and setting agenda for her. Besides, she is taking over at a time the organisation, according to her, is “facing so many challenges” and in need of “deep and wide-ranging reforms.”

The world is waiting to see how she would get the organisation to tackle rising protectionism, and growing disagreements over how it resolves trade disputes in a sophisticated global knowledge economy.

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Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged all these during an online news conference after her appointment was announced. “I absolutely do feel an additional burden. I can’t lie about that, she said. “Being the first woman and first African means that one has to perform. If I really want to make Africa and women proud, I have to produce results, and that is where my mind is now,” she stated.

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Speaking in New York, Umesiri underscored the need for African countries to “manage their expectations and the pressure” they put on the incoming DG.

“One thing we should realise is that the WTO is for the world and not for Africa alone. So, we just have to first clarify that. Okonjo-Iweala has been appointed to advance the interest of every country and region of the world,” she said.

According to her, international trade is governed by laws, rules and protocols, so is the decision making process at the WTO. She said it was important for Africans to always bear in mind that the emergence of one of their own as head is not a meal ticket at the WTO.

“I think all hands should be on deck. It’s Africa’s time, but at the end of the day, Africa cannot outsource its responsibility to build capacity. The world can be available to you, resources can be made available to you, but if you don’t train yourself, marshal your resources, build capacity for yourself, then you don’t leverage those opportunities.

“One of the things with Africa generally is that we always want to outsource the work, like ‘you do the work, we get the reward.’ Trade is not like that. If you want to be part of trade you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work like manufacturing, women empowerment, and youth mobilisation at the grassroots, among others,” she said.

Coincidentally, Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment to lead the WTO comes at a critical time that the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), one of the largest free trade agreements in the world, is being implemented in the region.

For one, the design of the AfCFTA, advertised as a potential game changer for Africa in the global trade arena, was partly inspired by WTO rules, according to the incoming DG. “The WTO has already lent its body of institutional knowledge and wisdom to help design this,” Okonjo-Iweala said during the news conference.

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Umesiri underscored the need for Africa to build on that by developing the capacities of all players, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs), creating an enabling environment and exploring more opportunities at the WTO.

“I think the African Union has a big role to play in tapping into the resources that the WTO has to offer in trade, because African exporters have not had access to resources for education and capacity building, and these things are available at the WTO, which is almost like a buffet table.

“If you are not in the room you cannot eat the food. It’s an opportunity for Africa to be part of wealth distribution, because trade is about wealth distribution, making sure that what you are creating you can distribute around the world without tariffs or organised barriers to your products from a particular market.

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“WTO is a negotiating body during trade disputes. Africa has not leveraged those resources. So, AU needs to lead and become a huge part of WTO, understanding what the organisation can do to marshal implementation of AfCFTA,” she said.

Specifically, the Nigerian-born U.S.-Africa trade facilitator suggested that as a central body, the AU is well positioned to coordinate Africa’s demands in future engagements at the WTO.

As questions such as “what does Africa need or want?” are raised, a central body is needed to provide the answers, otherwise coordinating directly with the 55 countries in the continent would be very challenging for the rest of the world,” she said.

Umesiri also set some agenda for Okonjo-Iweala. She said the incoming DG “must use her office to prioritise the advancement of the AfCFTA and support its implementation fully.”

She advised Okonjo-Iweala to use her influence as DG to market the AfCFTA to the rest of the world and move its implementation up to the agenda of the WTO.

“The rest of the world currently doesn’t regard the AfCFTA, people are still trying to figure out what it means for them. They are still saying ‘well, it is for Africa and doesn’t add any value to us.’ My first expectation is for the incoming DG to understand what it is and to help explain it to the rest of the world,” she said.

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In her blog post, Umesiri also stressed the need for the WTO under Okonjo-Iweala to demystify trade facilitation for Africans and promote the deployment of adequate training and resources to “jumpstart export development in the region.”

The incoming WTO DG was apparently thinking in that direction. Responding to questions at an online news conference, she said the organisation would provide further assistance in the AfCFTA’s implementation in the areas of capacity development and technical support where needed to help break any logjam.

“The second way is that the WTO is working on an investment facilitation agreement. I think pushing that hard and trying to see how we get investment into the continent will be very important, and we will do absolutely everything to try and facilitate that.

“If you look at the area of pharmaceutical products, Africa imports more than 90 per cent of the pharmaceuticals used on the continent. So, how can we help facilitate investment so that we can have on the continent the ability to manufacture more of our medical products and commodities?

“And the WTO, looking at what we can do on the investment side will be very important, working with other organisations in partnership, like the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank, and so on,” she said.

Okonjo-Iweala also noted that the continent must do its part to make sure conditions are “hospitable for investments to come in.”

Africa must indeed provide not only hospitable but conductive environment for investments to flow in as Okonjo-Iweala’s presence at the WTO is not a meal ticket for the continent.

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