By Josephine Agbonkhese
If there is any myth the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has ridiculed, it is the superiority or supremacy of male leadership.
Of all the countries reported and proven to have done well in tackling the pandemic, Germany comes first with Angela Merkel. But the US, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, UK, Spain, Italy are still foundering. Merkel’s unrivalled truthfulness and transparency prepared her people’s minds and, accordingly, the effort resulted in the lowest of COVID-19 cases and death in the entire developed world.
Germany had 201,836 cases and 9,157 deaths as of Friday, July 17. Nigeria’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has proved again and again that she can be a Merkel. And the World Trade Organisation, WTO, can be her Germany.
Contention for WTO’s apex job
The office of WTO Director-General will be vacated in August and, as usual, some of the world’s heavyweight finance and trade experts are contending for the position.
This is coming at a time the world deserves strategic, decisive and truthful leadership in every sector, just like women leaders are displaying. From Taiwan to New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark as shown by a recent Forbes report, where COVID-19 cases and deaths have been relatively low, women serve as leaders. Okonjo-Iweala is in that class of women.
As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, there is no questioning the fact that the world trade system is doomed to face a lot of difficulties in establishing confidence in multilateral systems. The more reason the WTO needs that breath of fresh air only Okonjo-Iweala can bring.
Fortunately, she has always been an ardent advocate of multilateral trade systems in line with the WTO’s guidelines.
There couldn’t have been a better time but now to have her head the WTO.
Three of the eight contenders for the WTO apex job are women, even though the organisation has never been headed by a woman. Nigeria’s highly-regarded finance and trade expert, Okonjo-Iweala, is one of the three women capable of rewriting history. The other two are a Kenyan and a Korean. The others (males) come from Egypt, Mexico, Moldova, Britain and Saudi Arabia.
Without trying to sound patriotic, one candidate stands out even among all aforementioned candidates. That’s Okonjo–Iweala, Nigeria’s nominee.
Quite frankly, the only candidate comparable to Okonjo-Iweala is Mexico’s Kuri.
What Okonjo-Iweala brings
To start with, Okonjo-Iweala’s achievements have earned her honorary degrees from 15 universities worldwide. The Harvard University graduate of Economics who graduated magna cum laude (1976) holds a Ph.D. in Regional Economics and Development from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT (1981). The global finance expert and international development professional has over 30 years of experience in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America.
A skilled negotiator, who has brokered numerous successful negotiations in various international capacities, Okonjo-Iweala is regarded as a consensus builder and an honest broker who enjoys the trust and confidence of governments and other stakeholders.
A two-time Minister of Finance and a one-time Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nigeria, she had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the number two position of Managing Director, Operations.
Also a firm believer in the power of trade to lift developing countries out of poverty and assist them to achieve robust economic growth, she is renowned as the first female and African candidate to contest for the presidency of the World Bank Group in 2012.
It was a candidacy backed by Africa and major developing countries in the first truly contestable race for the world’s highest development finance post.
As Managing Director of the World Bank, she had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia. She spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during the 2008-2009 food crisis and later during the financial crisis. In 2010, she was Chair of the World Bank’s successful drive to raise $49.3 billion in grants and low-interest credit for the poorest countries in the world.
Even though she hasn’t worked directly at the WTO, as Finance Minister, Okonjo-Iweala who had served for a decade on the Rockefeller Foundation Board and currently sits on the Board of Twitter Inc., Standard Chartered Bank and many more. She was involved in trade negotiations with various countries. She contributed to the overhaul of Nigeria’s trade policy, enabling it to enhance its competitiveness. Again as Finance Minister, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club of Creditors that led to the wiping out of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of $18 billion.
In her second term as Finance Minister, Okonjo-Iweala was responsible for leading reforms that enhanced transparency of government accounts and strengthened institutions against corruption, including the implementation of the GIFMS (Government Integrated Financial Management System), the IPPMS (Integrated Personnel and Payroll Management System), and the TSA (Treasury Single Accounts).
Okonjo-Iweala, who leads the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations, GAVI, was recently appointed as African Union, AU, Special Envoy to mobilise international financial support for the fight against COVID-19 and WHO Special Envoy for access to COVID-19 tools accelerator. These two recent appointments underscore the importance of female intervention in curbing the impact of the current global health pandemic — a necessity already emphasised by Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark, where women hold sway.
Already, Okonjo-Iweala had hinted, last week, while fielding questions from reporters shortly after the WTO General Council that “there is a need to address the challenge of the digital divide in developing and least-developed nations where infrastructure remains a major impediment to e-commerce and digital economy which are vital forms of trade, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.”
She also vowed to bring to bear her experience at GAVI by ensuring that once available, there are allocation criteria to ensure the coronavirus vaccine is accessible to all, including poorer countries.
The world has changed forever and COVID-19 has redefined “normal”.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has the qualification, experience, reach, network, clout and depth of character to lead WTO and prepare the world for post-coronavirus trade in the new normal world.
For this new world, only a pristine Okonjo-Iweala can offer a seminal leadership for WTO to efficiently interpret rules between nations.