On Monday, February 15, 2021, the World Trade Organization confirmed Ngozi Okonjo Iweala as its new Director-General. This followed the withdrawal of her last remaining rival for the role, South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee, earlier this month.
Dr Okonjo Iweala is expected to resume as DG of the global trade body on March 1.
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There’s been much joy expressed about her success at landing this position. This is probably justified; she will be the first woman and first African to head the WTO since its founding in 1995. For many Nigerians, it’s proof that their country is capable of producing first-rate minds who can take their place at the helm of the world’s most important organizations.
But does Nigeria stand to gain anything from her leading the WTO?
Expectations Modulated By Reality
Dr Okonjo Iweala will be wrestling with multiple challenges when she begins her new role. First on her plate will be the COVID-19 pandemic and the grinding effect it’s had on global trade. The trade tussle between the United States and China hasn’t exactly gone away either; she’ll have to sort that out too. Other feuds exist, involving influential and less powerful actors.
In tackling these thorny problems, she will be hoping to restore faith in what is currently a broken organization, with which very few are currently satisfied.
Very little time, then, for her to focus on doing favours for her home country. Nigerians should not expect any special dispensations from the WTO under Dr Okonjo Iweala. Nothing of this sort will happen.
Instead, they can hope that she achieves one of her stated aims—steering the organization back to its foundational goal, which is to ensure the liberalization of world trade for the benefit of all, especially developing nations. If this happens, Nigeria should reap from it in some way.
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In any case, the country has had a few of its citizens take up top roles at international bodies in recent years. Amina J. Mohammed at the UN and Chile Eboe-Osuji at the ICC are two that readily come to mind. Has Nigeria gotten anything special from these appointments?
What Nigeria Will Gain from Okonjo Iweala’s Win
But there are potential gains for Nigeria from Dr Okonjo Iweala’s victory.
The most obvious one—and perhaps the most short-lived of all –is bragging rights. Perhaps a few more people will come to recognize Nigeria’s ability to produce quality leaders. This may not necessarily translate to greater respect for the country on the world stage.
As we pointed out earlier, the real benefit for Nigeria may come from a recalibration of the terms of global trade. If the present trend towards protectionism is beaten back, Nigeria could gain easier access to new markets. Whether it is ready to take advantage of such an opportunity is, of course, a different question.
Dr Okonjo Iweala says one of her priorities is ensuring the fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the world. She has decried what she calls “vaccine nationalism”, a tendency for richer nations to secure vast amounts of vaccine stocks at the expense of poorer countries. If she aces her target of opening access to COVID-19 vaccines for developing countries, Nigeria may find it easier to secure more of them.
A lasting impact of Okonjo Iweala’s victory may be that she inspires more women and girls to achieve greater things in their careers. They will see the heights she’s reached, and be encouraged to aspire to be more than what they previously thought was possible.
Featured Image Source: France 24
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