By Reuben Abati
The biggest piece of happy-ending news in Nigeria in the month of February 2021 is the endorsement of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) by the United States. The South Korean candidate for the position, Yoo Myung-hee whose candidacy had enjoyed the backing of the United States under the Trump administration, withdrew and the South Korean authorities have since pledged their support for Dr. N.O. Iweala. The South Korean’s earlier refusal to step down had made it difficult for Dr. Iweala to be confirmed by consensus when she got the majority of the votes at the end of the selection process in October 2020. The WTO chooses its Director General by consensus. The Trump administration rejected Iweala on the grounds that she did not have requisite experience in “trade negotiations”. The process had to be kept on hold until after the US Presidential elections of November 2020.
Luck is a very powerful factor in human affairs. As it turned out, Donald Trump lost the election. His loss is not a gain for the Democrats and Joe Biden/Kamala Harris alone, it was also a major gain for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who has now benefitted from the change in the United States, as a globalist, liberal President emerges in the White House. One of Biden’s earliest tasks in office was to undo the damage left behind by his predecessor, and a resolve to re-establish America’s leadership in the international order, especially with regard to such issues as climate change, and America’s role and place in the world through such multilateral institutions as the UN, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. On Monday, February 15, the WTO officially announced Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director General of the WTO (March 1, 2021 – August 2025). You should have been in Nigeria or on Nigerian Social Media on that day.
Nigerian Twitter exploded with shouts of excitement and expressions of delight. Nigerians did not talk about luck. (But imagine if Trump had won and that guy called Robert Lightizer had remained US Trade Representative). They talked about the history made by a great Nigerian ambassador, a woman of destiny, and an accomplished person. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s triumph was the stuff of history: the first woman to emerge as DG of the WTO, the first African and also the first Nigerian to assume that office. This means a lot to the people. In a country where ethnic sentiments run deep, nobody talked about Okonjo-Iweala’s ethnic group. Nobody talked about her religion. Her achievement was something far more significant, a subtle projection of the fact that the same Nigerians that promote mediocrity routinely, appreciate and applaud distinction when they see it. As a people we indulge in mischief and unproductive wrangling for selfish reasons. But Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s making of history was far too iconic and legendary to be reduced to such base instincts. The joy that was expressed revealed a gift of humanism that is often masked in the Nigerian character. Congratulations. Congratulations. Congratulations.
It is early days yet under the Joe Biden administration but the new US President has signalled that there is now a new dawn in the United States and the world. Within the same period that the US dropped its opposition to the candidacy of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, President Biden earlier expressed his readiness to work with and support the African Union. President Trump, before him, was not too enthusiastic about Africa. He dismissed some of our countries as “shithole countries.” Nigeria was identified as one of such countries. Today, four Nigerian-Americans are in the Biden/Harris team. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has also been endorsed. The Biden administration would do well to build on the goodwill that it currently enjoys in Africa. In addition, African leaders deserve commendation for the solidarity that they demonstrated with their support for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy.
As we have seen in the case of Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus as DG of the WHO in 2017, and Dr. Akin Adesina’s re-election as AfDB President in 2020, in the face of again, Trump-America’s opposition, when African leaders unite around a goal, they can be more assertive within the international community. Back home, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari also deserves praise for the statesman-like, non-partisan support that he has given Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and before her, AfDB’s Dr. Akin Adesina. In June 2020, President Buhari nominated Okonjo-Iweala for the position, and withdrew the earlier candidacy of another Nigerian, Ambassador Frederick Agah. In October 2020, as the Americans tried to become a cog in the wheel of WTO progress. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala visited President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja to thank him for his support and to ask that Nigeria should continue to mobilise support for her candidacy. “Mr. President, put a smile on my face. I am very proud of my country”, she said. President Buhari told her: “I assure you that we will do all that we can to ensure that you emerge as the Director-General of WTO, not only because you are a Nigerian, but because you are a great Nigerian. You deserve this…I did the same for Dr Akinwunmi Adesina for President of the African Development Bank. Both of you served the country under the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). You are both highly qualified. We will continue to support you. I will immediately make those calls.” President Buhari has kept his promise. We are impressed. This is an act of mature leadership that we will recall positively.
NOI is of course eminently qualified for the position that is now hers. Twenty-five years at the World Bank as a technocrat, rising to become Vice President and Managing Director of the global body. Two-time Minister of Finance of Nigeria. One-time Minister of Foreign Affairs. Board Member, Twitter. Chair, GAVI Alliance. Special Envoy on COVID-19 to the African Union. Author. Public Intellectual. Ph.D, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Development Economics, with proven distinction in learning and character. Recipient of many awards and distinctions. Eminent global citizen. Even with the best of credentials, nonetheless, anyone seeking the leadership of a strategic body like the 164-member WTO would need a lot of support. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala got this in great supply. The return of the United States to the WTO fold, and the home support that she enjoys in Nigeria and Africa will make her assignment more manageable in many respects. Even more so would be the folk hero status she now enjoys among the African populace.
Last week, many of her compatriots took to the social media to celebrate. You may have heard of the Hillary Clinton pantsuit campaign or the Kamala Harris single strand, coral necklace celebration. The pantsuit is Hillary Clinton’s signature costume. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, her female supporters donned the pantsuit to demonstrate their solidarity for the then US Democratic Presidential candidate under the social media hashtag: #PantsuitNation. They were all over Facebook too as they projected the pantsuit as a symbol of Hillary Clinton’s messages: power, equality and a level playing field. Conservative and formal in her pantsuit, Hillary Clinton cut the image of a professional who could hold her own a in a room full of male politicians. She thus highlighted the connection between psychology and clothing. In 2020, we saw this on display again with the emergence of Kamala Harris as first female, first Asian, and first Black woman Vice President of the United States. On inauguration day, January 20, 2021, her admirers also wore her signature pearl necklace – not just a piece of jewelry, but a symbol of power, sisterhood and solidarity. They also created a Facebook page: “Wear Pearls on January 20, 2021”. In the last week, the new WTO DG has had her own costume moment.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is famous for her signature costume: the African wax two-piece attire, also known as “Ankara” capped with a head tie popularly known as “gele” in the South West of Nigeria. She probably in her younger days wore the regular female attires, pantsuit, skirts and blouses, but since her days as Nigeria’s Minister of Finance under the Obasanjo administration, Nigerians cannot remember seeing her in official capacity in anything other than the Ankara dress and gele. The head tie is a major fashion statement among African women, and the usual styles are quite flamboyant. Tying the gele in itself is an art. a thriving small-scale enterprise exists around it. Many men and women earn a living from helping to tie the gele, in very artistic. creative styles, the most striking for me being the multi-deck, layered, skyscraper type, or those types that are meant to make onlookers turn their heads to take a double look. Compared to other fabrics, the African wax is considered cheap because it comes in various shades of affordable grades, often difficult to distinguish in terms of cost or class by simply looking at it. In the early 2000s, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala adopted the African wax as her formal wear to official functions. Her adopted head tie style, which she said she stumbled upon by mistake, not knowing how to tie the gele properly, was often the butt of jokes – a flat wrap- around, strewn together bunch of cloth, like a male cap, with a knot at the back, what Yoruba women refer to as “osuka”. I don’t know the English word for that, sorry. In this signature two-piece, African wax costume, and the accidental gele, she made a powerful statement about simplicity, identity, authenticity and power. This same costume has now made it to the mainstream. It is hilariously remarkable.
On February 15, 2021, Ms Temi Giwa-Tubosun (@temite) wrote on Twitter: “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s tomorrow! #NOIgoestoWTO. We are giving away N100k to the best dressed! Dress up like NOI and send her a message of support as she goes to WTO!” This caught on like wildfire, and was shared under different hashtags: #AnkaraArmy, #NgozigoestoWTO, #BeLikeNgoziChallenge and #JustlikeNgozi. The Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Ankara skirt and blouse soon became ubiquitous on all social media platforms, with the gele of course tied in the same manner, and some of the participants adding the NOI eye-glasses for effect. The interesting part of it is that some men actually joined. In Africa, at least in our part of it, it is unusual for a man to tie the gele, such an appearance could be interpreted as a sign of malady. But her male fans could not be bothered. They joined the women and the young ladies. I do not know when the winner of the prize was announced or who the winner is. I have not bothered to find out. We were all so consumed with the Ngozi-mania, the celebration and the euphoria, it did not matter who won and who did not.
My favourite entry, however, was posted by Tolulope Adeleru-Balogun (@tolulopeab} showing her daughter dressed like NOI, head to toe, tipping down her eye-glasses imitatively as she said: “Congratulations, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.” The #NOIchallenge will continue as promised on March 1, the day Ngozi goes to the WTO. If the Swiss authorities would be willing to give out visas as requested, to every African, many will follow Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to the WTO to announce her arrival! They should therefore be prepared for a colourful Ngonization of the WTO headquarters because as the saying goes, “Naija no dey carry last”. One more thing: the symbolism of it all is inspirational.
Despite the many achievements, historical and contemporary, of the African woman, there are still many institutional, religious and cultural barriers, very resilient and damaging, which limit the potential of the African girl-child and woman. This dilemma has been well written about in literature, as in Tsisi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Buchi Emecheta’s The Slave, Second Class Citizen and The Bride Price. Add Zulu Sofola’s Wedlock of the Gods; in politics as in the discrimination and marginalization of women in public life despite years of rhetoric about affirmative action; in business and governance as evidenced in continuing inferiorization and commoditization of the African woman and the wanton feminization of poverty. The likes of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala shattered the glass ceiling long ago. She is a successful career person, a mother, a community leader and an international citizen, who inspires other Africans with how she has successfully managed to balance many goals. Many parents want their daughters and sons to be like her.
One Swedish newspaper however, referred to her as a “grandmother”: “This Grandmother will become the boss of the WTO” (Luzerner Zeitung): How sexist and crass! The reference to her feminism and reproductive status is entirely misplaced. They make it sound as if she is going to the WTO to baby sit: what Igbos in Nigeria’s South East call “Omu Ngwo”. But come to think of it: perhaps that is exactly what the WTO needs: a grandmother’s instincts to straighten an institution that some bad, errant boys have spoiled over the years. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala says she is going there with “clear eyes and ears.” We are beginning to see the signs. She is going to the WTO to save the organization, and the rest of the world. Africans have high expectations too. What does her new status mean for Africa, Nigeria and African trade in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCTA), beyond the symbolism of her African-ness?
She goes to Geneva as an African but as a global leader and citizen. And there is a lot to do. She has given a signal of what to expect with her initial statement about the threat posed to internationalism by “vaccine nationalism”. She says “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” That is precisely the kind of clarity that the world needs right now.