Tuesday, 14 July 2020 04:01

[OPINION] Who’s Afraid of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala? - Reuben Abati

Who is afraid of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s nominee for the soon-to-be-vacant post of Director General of the World Trade Organization? I ask this question because over the weekend, her media adviser, my long-time colleague, Paul Nwabuikwu issued a statement in which he alleged that some “powerful and well-connected forces” in Nigeria were working hard, manufacturing controversies, and “peddling outright lies” to sabotage Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s chances for the WTO top job. Paul Nwabuikwu could not have issued that statement without Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s approval. 

Well, I am not shocked that some people would take as their own personal priority and task, sabotaging a compatriot whose elevation and success would rub off positively on Nigeria and the continent. We complain about many issues in our country, but we often overlook the fact that there are many sado-masochists in this country, complete sadists who are perpetually seeking the downfall of others. Such persons do so for a variety of reasons: their own Luciferian complex, mischief, ethnic, or religious reasons or plain wickedness to the other. Mental health preservation should become a national priority to mitigate the damage that these victims of the Lucifer Effect do to our national psyche. The sabotage that Nwabuikwu referred to has to do with an attempt to link Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with the Indigenous Peoples Organization of Biafra (IPOB). 

The claim is that she and IPOB share the same PR Consultants, Mercury LLC in the United States. Mercury LLC is a high-profile public affairs firm in Washington DC.  I recall an encounter with some of its officials in the course of official work around 2014. I have no doubt that it is an agency that has some link with Nigeria and Nigerian interests. At that time, there was even a Nigerian who was a prominent member of the agency. It is not impossible that the agency may have done some work for IPOB, but to take a leap from that and use it to blackmail Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala does not make sense to me. Certain persons may disagree with the methods of IPOB and the style of its leadership, but self-determination is certainly not a crime. 

I have argued elsewhere on this subject that even if the matter of Biafra were to be subjected to a referendum tomorrow or any time in the future, I do not see IPOB getting enough votes to pull the South East out of Nigeria. Igbos and the rest of Nigeria are so enmeshed, so intertwined, so umbilically linked that a separation 1967-style as proposed may be more difficult today. In the same manner, I do not imagine that those who are calling for an Oduduwa Republic also assume that it would be an easy task.  Where the challenge lies is: how do we finally turn Nigeria into a nation where all groups and stakeholders can share a sense of belonging, informed by the principles of equity, justice and fairness? Nigeria as it is, is an unbalanced nation, and a theatre of injustice and inequities. These are the fault lines that promote and fuel the opportunistic resort to primordial sentiments and tactics.  Okonjo-Iweala is not a member of IPOB. Mercury LLC has said they are not involved in her WTO campaign. She has also publicly declared that she cannot even afford a PR agency. To project Nigeria’s local politics unto the canvas of her bid for the WTO top job is yet another ugly manifestation of the Nigerian factor. Who the hell is behind this? Her media adviser did not tell us. There may be need in the future to name and shame those persons who stand in the way of Nigeria’s interest on the global stage. 

This is my second newspaper commentary on the WTO and the search for a fit replacement for the Brazilian incumbent DG, Roberto Azevedo, who has chosen to leave a year earlier than scheduled. In my earlier commentary, I argued that I consider Okonjo-Iweala the best person for the job. I stand by that comment. I argued that Europe which has more or less dominated the position should not be allowed to take it again. I condemned Egypt’s opposition to Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy and called for African solidarity. I made a case for a reform of the WTO. I advised further that the Nigerian Government should deploy diplomacy at the highest levels to support Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s aspiration, having chosen to nominate her – a good move, coming also at a time when the President openly supported Akinwunmi Adesina, the Nigerian President of the African Development Bank who is seeking a second term in office. Many Nigerians accuse President Muhammadu Buhari of sectionalism, nepotism and specifically, of Northern-mindedness but the support that he has shown for both Okonjo-Iweala and Adesina is perhaps indicative of a change of style.  

But where are we at the moment? When I wrote the piece earlier referred to (see “Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, WTO and Africa’s Chances”, THISDAY, back-page, Tuesday, June 16, 2020), there were just three candidates, but the list has since expanded. We now have a total of eight candidates vying for the position of the WTO Director-General, namely Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria), Ms Yoo Myung-Hee (South Korea), Tudor Ulianovschi (Moldova), Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt), Jesus Seade Kuri (Mexico), Ms. Amina C. Mohammed (Kenya), Dr. Liam Fox (United Kingdom), and Mohammad Mazia al-Tualjri (Saudi Arabia).  Just take a look at that list. I don’t know what Liam Fox is doing there. But check again. Only Africa has three candidates! Many African leaders, and particularly the ECOWAS, have expressed support for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, but only Africa has three candidates in the contest! Nigeria’s foreign affairs is guided by the principle that Africa is the centre-piece of the country’s foreign policy process. Accordingly, Nigeria has done so much for Africa, but whenever Nigeria’s interest is involved, other African countries are ever so eager to sabotage Nigeria and the interest of its citizens be it at multilateral, bilateral or citizen-to-citizen levels. Perhaps the time has come for the Father Christmas character of Nigeria’s foreign policy process to be reviewed.  Of what use is the country’s benevolence to other African nations if we can not pull our weight and exert influence in return for the enormous goodwill we invest? 

It is safe, however, to assume that the treatment we receive outside is a measure of how we treat ourselves shabbily within. Of all the eight candidates vying for the position of WTO Director-General, only Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has had cause to protest that she is being sabotaged by some of her “powerful and well-connected” compatriots.  When I called on the Nigerian Government to mobilise resources to support her nomination, I had hoped that by now, there will be an Inter-Ministerial Committee in place that will be all over the WTO space to solicit support for Nigeria. I also expected that despite COVID-19, President Buhari would have sent envoys to ask for the support of other countries. What I have seen and I stand to be corrected, is Dr. Okonjo-Iweala doing all the campaigns by herself, up to the point that she has had to cry out. Some people in government just don’t draw the line between personal issues and the national interest. The other day, one character in government disclosed that Mustapha Chike-Obi had been asked to talk to the Americans to lobby them to support AFDB Akin Adesina’s re-election. Who is the nitwit who thought that was something to disclose publicly? What was that in aid of? Even if Nigeria wants to lobby the United States and ask for fairness, must that be in the public domain? 

We need to get our acts together. To go back to the WTO matter, the selection process has become far more competitive than it was in June. This week, I understand the WTO General Council will begin to interview the eight candidates. Nigeria still has a chance to stand up for its candidate. I remain convinced that Nigeria deserves the position and that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is an excellent choice.       

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