Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of World Trade Organisation

Reforms, accessible COVID-19 vaccines, fair trade are top priorities at WTO ─Okonjo-Iweala

*Nigerian President Muhammadu affirms Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, newly appointed Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, will excel in her new position and validate the global mandate of repositioning, strengthening the multilateral institution for the greater good of all

*Russia indicates readiness to support Okonjo-Iweala leadership of WTO as other world leaders congratulate her on recent appointment

Gbenga Kayode | ConsumerConnect

Following her recent confirmation for the top job, Nigerian-born Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, newly appointed Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), has said deep reforms and fair trade are needed to rebrand and reposition the organisation, while ramping up the international efforts at combating the damaging Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as top priorities.

WTO’s 164 members unanimously selected 66-year-old Dr. Okonjo-Iweala as the Director-General Monday, February 15, 2021, becoming the first African female leader of the global trade body.

The development economist and former Minister for Finance and Economy in her home country Nigeria, with accumulated 25 years’ experience was appointed by the WTO after the last remaining rival candidate, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, withdrew from the race for headship of the organisation.

Now, Okonjo-Iweala will take up her post at the WTO Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, March 1, initially for a term that runs until August 2025.

Prior to her recent appointment as the Director-General, she had enjoyed broad support from WTO members, including the European Union (EU), China, Japan and Australia, whereas the United States (US) under the Donald Trump administration openly, had favoured South Korea’s Myung-hee, reports said.

But during the contest for the top position, Okonjo-Iweala had contended that of the eight candidates, and declared that she was best placed for the plum post to steer the WTO through the crises, calling herself a ‘reform candidate’.

ConsumerConnect reports General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand who, together with co-facilitators Amb. Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Amb. Harald Aspelund (Iceland) led the nine-month selection process for the new Director-General of the global body, in a statement said “this is a very significant moment for the WTO.

“On behalf of the General Council, I extend our warmest congratulations to Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on her appointment as the WTO’s next Director-General and formally welcome her to this General Council meeting.”

Walker stated that “Dr. Ngozi, on behalf of all members, I wish to sincerely thank you for your graciousness in these exceptional months, and for your patience.

“We look forward to collaborating closely with you, Dr. Ngozi; and I am certain that all members will work with you constructively during your tenure as Director-General to shape the future of this organisation.”

Okonjo Iweala’s core priorities as WTO Director-General

Responding to her historic appointment as the new WTO Chief, the organisation’s statement quoted Okonjo-Iweala as saying that a key priority for her would be to work with members to quickly address the economic and health consequences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said: “I am honoured to have been selected by WTO members as WTO Director-General.

“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.

“Our organisation faces a great many challenges, but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile, and better adapted to the realities of today.”

Hitherto, the organisation was said to have struggled with multiple crises to prevent trade spats among member states, most notably the United States and China.

President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR (r) and Dr. Okonjo-Iweala

Perhaps as an adjunct to the aggressive relationship between the leading world economies, the Geneva-based WTO has been without a permanent Director-General since Roberto Azevêdo stepped down a year earlier than planned in August 2020.

On the need for instantaneous, deep reforms in the global trade body, therefore, Okonjo-Iweala has acknowledged the need for reform.

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, she noted that “it feels exciting and it feels daunting at the same time.

“I look forward to the challenge … deep reforms are needed to rebrand and reposition the organisation.”

According to her, intensifying global efforts at fighting COVID-19 is also a priority for her leadership of the WTO.

The new Director-General explained: “One of … top priorities that I have, that I’m passionate about, is how can trade and the WTO play a stronger role in bringing solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, both on the health side but also on the economic side.”

Whereas economic recovery is reliant on trade, solving public health challenges also requires “good trade”, she noted.

On curbing the raging novel Coronavirus, Okonjo-Iweala who described herself as “a fighter” who is “focused on results” also told Reuters that “no one is safe until everyone is safe” in the global community.

She further explained: “Vaccine nationalism at this time just will not pay, because the variants are coming.

“If other countries are not immunised, it will just be a blowback. It’s unconscionable that people will be dying elsewhere, waiting in a queue, when we have the technology.”

In 2020, she had pointed out that “it can’t be business as usual…. It can’t be more of the same. It can’t be someone who just knows the issues and how the place works.

“We have tried that. Of all the challengers for the job, I have the right combination of skills.”

Incidentally, Okonjo-Iweala had spent 25 years at the World Bank as a development economist, rising from the ranks to the position of Managing Director of the global lending institution.

She also chaired the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which is helping to distribute Coronavirus vaccines globally, stepping down at the end of her term last December.

In regard to the worldwide concern, that rich Western countries must have ‘hoarded’ COVID-19 vaccines, as the African continent in particular is being left behind as infection cases surge, Okonjo-Iweala said in the interview that the WTO needs “rules that will allow access and equity for vaccines, and therapeutics and diagnostics.”

“That’s a big issue for me, how do we get the solutions to the present pandemic?” she said during the interview.

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, in a newspaper Op-Ed piece February 7 had expressed worries that developing countries are unable to access adequate vaccine supplies for their citizens since some vaccines were approved and released for immunisation, according to The Guardian UK.

The Rwandan President stated: “Rich and powerful nations have rushed to lock up supply of multiple vaccine candidates.

“Worse, some are hoarding vaccines — purchasing many times more doses than they need.

“This leaves African and other developing countries either far behind in the vaccine queue, or not in it at all.”

In the meantime, torrents of congratulatory messages have continued to pour in for DR. Okonjo-Iweala on her latest appointment as the WTO Director-General.

Hearty congratulations on appointment from far and wide

Her appointment has been welcomed as a significant achievement by people in her native Nigeria and an #ankaraarmy — referring to the distinctive African print she wears — has already formed online.

From her homeland, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has felicitated with former Dr. Okonjo-Iweala on her appointment as Director-General of the global body.

Malam Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to President Buhari on Media and Publicity, in a statement in Abuja, FCT, said the “as the Harvard-educated and renowned economist takes up another onerous task of service to the world and   humanity, the President believes her track record of integrity, diligence and   passion for development will continue to yield positive results and rewards to mankind.

“President Buhari affirms that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, who over the years set major records of economic reforms in Nigeria as Minister of Finance, and later Minister of Foreign Affairs, will excel in her new position and validate the global mandate of repositioning and strengthening the multilateral institution for the greater good of all.”

WTO Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland

Dr. Ahmad Lawan, President of Senate, in his congratulatory message Monday also said: “I heartily rejoice with Dr. Okonjo-Iweala on this well-deserved victory.

“With her latest feat, the former Nigerian Minister of Finance and Managing Director of the World Bank has, again, brought honour to Nigeria, Africa and women everywhere.”

Lawan stated: “I join the rest of the world to congratulate our sister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on her well-deserved emergence as the DG of the WTO.

“This is a historic and momentous achievement, not only for Nigeria, but also for the entire Africa.”

Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, noted  that the “former two-time Finance Minister of Nigeria comes to office with a wealth of experience that spans several decades, saying her track record speaks volumes.”

For former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, Okonjo-Iweala has all it takes to succeed in her new role.

Atiku via his official Twitter account, said: “Dr (Mrs) @NOIweala is a woman I know very well because we worked at close quarters between 2003 and 2007 when she served in our administration in various capacities, most notably as Finance Minister.

“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.”

Governor (Dr. Sen.) Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State as well said the appointment of Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of WTO was a testament to her competence and experience as a renowned economist and international development expert.

The governor noted: “Her appointment is indeed, a testament to your competence and experience as a renowned economist and international development expert. You went through a very rigorous and competitive process to emerge as the new head at the WTO.

“On behalf of my family, the Government and people of Delta, I congratulate a worthy Ambassador of Delta and Nigeria, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on the recognition and appointment.”

From the real sector of the country’s economy, Segun Ajayi-Kadri, Director-General, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), stated: “This is a plus for our country in the international community and a welcome development for Africa, with the onset of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

“I congratulate Mr. President (Buhari) on this feat and commend him for the dogged support he rallied for her.

“As you are aware, the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) which will cover a market of 1.2 billion people and a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of more than $3 trillion would need the support of her expertise for a smooth take-off and steady success as a huge component of the world economy.”

In their remarks on Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment, China’s delegation to the WTO said: “The WTO is at its critical moment and must be able to deliver soon.

“The collective decision made by the entire membership demonstrates a vote of trust not only in Dr. Ngozi herself but also in our vision, our expectation and the multilateral trading system that we all believe [in] and preserve.”

Simon, Coordinator of Global Trade Alert, an independent trade policy monitoring group and Professor of International Trade at the Swiss University St. Gallen, in an open letter to her noted that the WTO has historic chance to become a global champion for saving lives during the pandemic.

Evenet said: “Fighting COVID-19 is mostly a matter for national governments, but the WTO has a key role.

“The pandemic won’t be over anywhere until it is over everywhere, and trade will be critical to defeating it globally.”

The WTO “can and must” negotiate rules, or best practices, to smooth the path for medical supplies to be exported to developing world countries, find ways to keep ports open and offer credit support to businesses prevented from supporting the fight against infection and the spread of the disease, said he.

Russia indicates readiness to support Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership at WTO

In the same vein, Russia has said that it is ready to cooperate with Okonjo-Iweala as the newly-appointed Director-General of WTO.

Russian Economic Development Minister Maksim Reshetnikov disclosed this development Tuesday, February 16, 2021.

Reshetnikov in the ministry’s statement said: “We intend to constructively cooperate with the new Director-General, assist her in efforts to improve the organisation for the benefit of its members, and improve the efficiency of regular work and negotiations at the WTO.

According to the Minister, Russia consistently advocated the early appointment of a new WTO head, and actively participated in consultations with other members of the organisation on this issue.

“I am sure that the professional background of Okonjo-Iweala and her authority in the international arena will allow her to successfully tackle urgent issues the WTO is facing, strengthen the organisation’s key role in multilateral trade system, contribute to reaching compromise on key issues regarding reforming the WTO, which will eventually make a significant contribution to the world economic recovery.”

Additional reporting by Isola Moses

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