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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: Beyond Gender



On March 1, a good working Monday, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Finance Minister and the first woman and African to be appointed as Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, resumed her first day of work as WTO chief. In welcoming her, the trade organisation said: “Welcome to Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, on her first day as WTO Director-General! She makes history as the first woman and first African to take up this post.”

She assumes office in an interesting time when glass ceilings are being shattered into some smithereens. The first interplanetary (Hope) mission of United Arab Emirates, UAE, landed on planet Mars on Tuesday February 9, 2021, first Arab nation to announce an ambition to be on the moon in 2024. A returnee from that historic mission to Mars, reading the global print media coverage of the election of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the seventh Director General of WTO would have rightly assumed the unprecedented feat was an affirmative global action that privileged a Nigerian-American mother: Ngozi Iweala! “New WTO Head Becomes First Woman and African to Lead Global Trade Body”, reads most headlines!

Happily UAE’s interplanetary (Hope) mission is unmanned. Thank God, no returnee would suffer foolery. The reportage of Ngozi’s victory had inadvertently triggered a variant of what I call “Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf media syndrome” which often manifests in the male- dominated global media once a woman breaks the glass ceiling erected in the first place by the men! Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the 2011 Winner of Nobel Peace prize. In 2005, she won the historic Liberian presidential election to become the 24th President of Liberia. The headlines passed for some ecstasies, akin to some hysteria: “The Iron-Lady takes charge in Liberia”, “Age of Women”, “Women are coming”, ad infinitum.

Of course Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a woman. A proud mother of four children and grandchildren. Certainly she is truly the first female democratically elected President in Africa. But notwithstanding the importance of gender, the obsession with gender dimension of Johnson’s Presidency, (no less the global elevation of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala) pointed to our readiness to undervalue the participation of women in governance and belittle their achievements made in spite their gender. In a continent in which it is easier to transfer power and wealth to male child than to a wife and female child, female presidency/headship of a global trade clearing house understandably captures the gender imagination.

But, the point cannot be overemphasised: Ellen Sirleaf’s democratic victory was a product of her direct political engagement of trial and error spanning decades, political contestation and cooperation, political adversities in forms of vicious harassments, imprisonments, missed assassinations and forced exile, national commitment and international exposure. She was declared the winner on November 23, 2005, as the candidate of the Unity Party. But that was after an acrimonious run-off with a professional footballer, George Weah, who she defeated by 59 per cent to vote 40 per cent vote counts.

It’s been a challenging journey for Mrs Okonjo-Iweala also. The opposition of  Donald Trump’s administration against her candidacy was an open knowledge but she refused to be distracted by the antics of the administration of almost twice impeached America’s “Commander-In-Diversions”. Ngozi showed that when the going is tough only the determined remains as focused.

I agree with   the Rights activist, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is “a dogged person”. Other women and indeed men who are eager to follow their footsteps must realise that there is a long walk to victory. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala brings to the table 40 years of struggle and persistence to succeed and excel even when it seemed impossible until it is done as the late Nelson Mandela puts it. Of course gender is part of Iweala’s success story.

Reaching the zenith is not a preserve of men as women can run a worthy campaign for elective offices better than some men. Indeed her success glamours this year’s International Women’s Day celebration on March 8. She also proudly dedicates the record achievement to women. However, her main strength is soft (knowledge) power. Okonjo-Iweala is a product of the best of public education, home and abroad. She is a multiple degree holder from branded universities: Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she bagged Ph.D in regional economics and development economics.

In 2012, she ran a controversial but audacious campaign for the presidency of the World Bank, insisting that the plumb job almost by design reserved for Americans (Americans alone! IMF for Europeans) be made open to competition(the mantra of global market economy even when observed in the breach in the global institutions). Two- term Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs under President Olusegun Obasanjo, she returned from the World Bank to take up an expanded position as Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance. She was de facto an unofficial “Prime Minister” in a presidential system! As a student of development and labour market economics, I marvel at how Madam Ngozi is “over-employed” with serial appointments and elective offices in a continent of open 50 percent youth unemployment!

Her relative ease of labour market entry and exit with tenacity of purpose still tasks imagination of labour market students. When she left the World Bank for Jonathan’s cabinet, President Robert Zoellick then World Bank, said: “Her desire to serve her country is truly a big loss for the World Bank but a major gain for Nigeria as it works to craft its economic way forward.”  Very few have so many referees with good jobs in waiting, jobs in deferment, jobs in bid! But not without amazing stories of adversities of frightening dimensions too.

The “2020 African of the Year” told Africa Forbes magazine in November last year: “My mother was kidnapped and held for five days when I was Finance Minister. The kidnappers thought that killing me would be too merciful and wanted to paralyse me for the rest of my life. When you are fighting powerful people who are corrupt, they fight back in very dangerous ways”. Ngozi truly dares to make a change with all the attendant risks in a country of elitist least resistance and petty grumblings.

But the critical question begging for answer is: what impact is she going to make in an organisation, under whose watch international trade has among others, deepened what UN Secretary-General dubbed “inequality pandemic”? Like the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the original name of the World Bank) established in 1944, WTO hitherto General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT, commenced in 1948. That was almost two decades before Nigeria and most African countries got independence.

So what difference can an African leadership of an organisation formed in spite of, (without!) Africa make? It’s gratifying listening to Dr. Ngozi unfolding her vision at the 2021 Lagos ‘Ehingbeti’ Economic Summit. “Majority of Africans are still exporting primary products like fossil fuels, minerals (diamonds, tin, copper) or agriculture products (cocoa and coffee). We have to get from a position of where we are exporting raw materials to a position where we are adding more value.”

She spoke the mind of few African compatriots still standing. It’s time that Africa and Africans got strategic with WTO to make sure that trade becomes a means of re-industrialisation of Africa and not under development. There must be alternative trade policies that would factor the needs of working people around the world, inclusive of economic growth and sustainable development.

The history of WTO in Africa in many respects fostered de-industrialisation and job losses through uncritical wholesale dismantling of protection for domestic industries. The emergence of Okonjo-Iweala was in the fullest of time in a pandemic when the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCFTA, involving 54 African countries in one economic trading zone with a combined population of more than one billion people combined gross domestic product of more than US$3.4 trillion is new normal.

In her acceptance speech on Monday, Okonjo-Iweala said one of her top priorities would be to work with members “to quickly address the economic and health consequences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic”. She then added: “A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic”. WTO under the leadership of an African must make a difference by ensuring that trade serves the purpose of wider growth, as well industrialisation and mass jobs’ creation on the basis of respect for workers and their rights.

It’s good news that the new director-general of WTO is passionate about decent jobs for the youths of Africa. The best support Africans can give their own is a peaceful and productive continent that would facilitate international and continental trade for empowerment and value addition. Senseless banditry, proxy wars of attrition must give way to Partnership for Development (goal 17 of SDG 2030!) “My education was truncated by the Nigerian Biafra War. We were in the war for three years and this was something that really opened my eyes. It started when I was just entering my teens and finished when I was in my mid-teens. It was a harrowing time, two of the three years I didn’t go to school.”

How many “Ngozis” were lost to the avoidable conflicts in Africa are better imagined. And better too, how many female African “firsts” await the continent with sustainable peace and development?


By Issa Aremu

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