Opinionista Azubuike Ishiekwene 21 February 2021

World Trade Organisation: The black African ‘grandmother’ who could just save the world from itself

The new director-general of the World Trade Organisation, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has more than proved herself as managing director at the World Bank and Nigeria’s two-time minister of finance – disparaging Swiss headlines notwithstanding. That Nigeria emerged nearly debt-free and was Africa’s largest economy in the 2000s is largely credit to her and her team while she was finance minister.

As the World Trade Organisation (WTO) formally announced the appointment of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as director-general this week, a Swiss newspaper received her with a disgraceful headline: “This Grandmother will become the boss of the WTO,” with her photograph under the headline.

The headline sparked an outrage, forcing the editors to modify their position: “This 66-year-old Nigerian will head WTO.”

At least three Swiss newspapers – Luzerner Zeitung, Aarguaer Zeitung and St Galler Tagblatt – fetched their headlines from the gutter, making slight changes only after they were called out for racism.

They removed the sting, but left the poison. That’s their grief. The candidacy of Okonjo-Iweala for the position of DG has been one of the most contentious in the history of the 26-year-old organisation. And partly for the sort of maliciously dumb reasons reflected in the headlines of the Swiss newspapers.

Some folks just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that a woman is taking the position. That a black woman is taking over only compounds their misery. Yet, Okonjo-Iweala is not just any black woman. She beat eight of the world’s best contenders from four continents to clinch the position. And yes, two women reached the final round, shattering the glass ceiling of chauvinism in the global trading system.

Since its founding in 1995, the WTO has been an exclusive boys’ network running errands for the world’s richest countries who won’t play by fair trading rules and its poorest who have no interest in the rules because they believe the system is rigged against them.

But even among the rich countries, there’s no agreement on the rules. Donald Trump spent four years of his presidency in a fierce trade war with China, claiming unfair practices, currency manipulation and outright stealing of US patents and copyright by Chinese companies.

Trump did many things wrong, and precipitously, too – including, for example, the tearing up of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal; the violation of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement and everything else in between. His obsession with protectionism perpetually kept the world on the verge of a global trade war. Yet a few of his complaints about China, especially on intellectual property rights, were spot-on.

Of course China, ever so eager and pleased to be underrated, also had its own complaints against what it described as Trump’s hard-headed protectionism, claiming in a legal case lodged with the WTO two years ago that US tariffs had affected $300-billion of Chinese exports.

In the fight between the two elephants, worsened by Brexit, the grass of shared global prosperity has suffered. At heart, WTO is a network of 164 members and 25 observer governments with a deeply ingrained male culture that gives the impression that stability in the rules-based system is measured by brawn and testosterone.

We have seen what that culture is costing the world. It has endangered the collective wisdom that produced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) after World War 2. That wisdom came from the understanding that shared prosperity through free international trade could keep the world from another catastrophe.

Gatt failed because it lacked the mechanism to negotiate and settle legal disputes on trade among its members, especially those related to agriculture and textiles.

A series of negotiations, famously called the Uruguay Round, which started in 1986, led to the birth of the WTO – a rules-based system that is supposed to help liberalise international trade and settle disputes among member states.

WTO has helped to promote free trade, lifting hundreds of millions from poverty across the world. British MP and also one of the contenders for the DG WTO, Liam Fox, said in his book Rising Tides that the WTO “is the best mechanism we have so far devised” in managing global trade. We would have had to improvise it if it didn’t exist.

Yet, its predominantly masochistic instincts have prevented it from looking beyond pandering to the interests of its rich and powerful club members. The fear among political leaders that the WTO tends to promote globalisation and the “loss” of sovereignty, has not helped matters.

Between the arrogant pride of rich club members who moan that the WTO is not paying enough attention to services and intellectual property, and the mass of developing countries that complain about fallouts of globalisation, the future of the WTO hangs in a precarious balance.

The absurd sentiment expressed in the Swiss newspapers about a grandmother taking the job was not just a gender slur, it also reflected the desperation of an old entitled guard determined to either permanently hijack the WTO or else push it over the cliff. They fear that with the confirmation of Okonjo-Iweala, their cringeworthy world may fall off a cliff.

But love her or despise her, this grandmother has come to stay. And while we recognise that the gender bias is only a part of the problem of the old boys’ network, there’s also a clear hint of racial prejudice which the Swiss newspapers, based in the same country where the WTO has its headquarters, were not ashamed to wear proudly on their sleeve.

The newspapers could also not endure the fact that not just a black woman, but a black African woman, is at the helm. So, they had to exhume the worst metaphor possible from their closet of scarecrows to make the point.

As conservationist Linda Klare-Repnik said on LinkedIn, “If it had been a white man, the title would have been along the lines of ‘Harvard Economist, ex-World Bank Managing Director and ex-Minister of Finance’…”

But Okonjo-Iweala is not white and would be judged, in the end, not by her skin colour. She would be judged by her promise to reform the “broken” system of international free trade, and by her pledge to build bridges and create a platform “where all members, big and small, believe and trust in the system and can use it”, as she told Time.

Not that she’s on probation. She more than proved herself as managing director at the World Bank and Nigeria’s two-time minister of finance. That Nigeria emerged nearly debt-free and was Africa’s largest economy in the 2000s is largely credit to her and the economic management team on her watch as finance minister.

The point is that she’s coming to her job at a time when confidence in the global trading system is in a shambles, partly inflicted by the conflict between the US and China, worsened by indifference among developing countries, and gravely compounded by the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election may lessen the trade conflict between two of the WTO’s largest economies – the US and China – but indifference to the organisation among developing countries and Covid-19 are still clear and present dangers.

Yet these factors are also opportunities – at least in Africa where the impact of the pandemic has been relatively under control. Also, the commencement of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) signals a greater zeal for more intraregional trade.

For decades, the continent has been shortchanged just as much as it has shortchanged itself by leaders who trade empty ideologies in the morning and peddle begging bowls by night. They expect Chinese brains to build their roads and factories, yet have no qualms about implementing policies that impoverish their countries. The money they stash away in Swiss banks and other foreign accounts fund the grandmother insult.

It’s a long road to redemption, but hopefully, AfCFTA is the beginning of the end of making barriers, instead of making wealth through trade and innovation. Previous heads of the WTO did what they could, but Africa remained squarely on the fringe of the global trade map. If it will take a grandmother to shake things up, then Okonjo-Iweala’s tenure is long overdue. DM

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