Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala emerged as the first woman and also the first African Director-General of the World Trade Organization. This has been celebrated by several organisations across the world, and in the country.
These include Transparency International which declared that she would “bring an anti-corruption lens to the organization’s work”. NLC also saluted the “authenticity” of her brand in a congratulatory letter, and added that Nigerian workers are “very proud” of her “sterling and inspiring career”.
But is Okonjo-Iweala’s record anything workers and their organisations should celebrate? How true is the myth of her anti-corruption lens?
Her record in and outside Nigeria has not been in the interest of working people or poor women. She worked off and on for a quarter of a century at the World Bank, rising to the position of managing director. She also ran for the position of World Bank president. To bolster her chances, she gained American citizenship.
Patriotism is a scoundrel’s instrument used by the bosses only when it best serves them well, including to keep us in line behind them in our different countries. Working-class people across the world have much more in common, as exploited people than the bosses from “their” country.
NOI, as she is fondly called by her supporters, was finance minister at a period that the bank burdened African countries with structural adjustment programmes. This made the rich richer, with the number of millionaires and billionaires increasing. At the same time the poor became very much poorer. Unemployment and poverty rates increased astronomically.
She served twice, under different presidents, and briefly as foreign minister. As finance minister, she implemented privatisation and deregulation policies, which led to sharp hikes in fuel pump price and increases in cost of living for the poor, without commensurate increase in our wages.
She paid lip service to the cause of women empowerment and even set up a “Growing Girls and Women in Nigeria (GWIN) programme. This was part of the World Bank inspired Poverty Alleviation Programme (PAP) that was supposedly meant to promote entrepreneurship. The idea behind “entrepreneurship” itself (which also found its way into university programmes at that time) is to divert pressures for job creation from the government.
Thus, not surprisingly, instead of providing jobs and decent work for women, the GWIN programme simply organised skills acquisition programmes and provided small amounts of loans to a few women to start small businesses. Apart from the fact that this impacted on the lives of just a few women, it also became a corruption-ridden means of patronage for supporters of the ruling PDP at the time.
Meanwhile, she supervised cuts in the public funding of social services. This made it more difficult for working people, particularly poor women in urban and rural areas to access quality health. The public education system also suffered immensely, while private schools which were available for children of the rich at all levels, flourished.
A major achievement often credited to Okonjo-Iweala as finance minister was the 2005 negotiations with Paris Club on Nigeria’s $30bn debt. This resulted in the reduction of $18bn from the debt and buyback of the remaining amount. But a few important details are usually left out of the story.
First, was the illegitimacy of debts as an instrument of imperialist exploitation of developing countries in the first place.
Second and quite importantly, is the context of the debt cancellation. The negotiations did not take place simply because of Iweala’s ingenuity. It was pressures from civil society organisations, trade unions and faith-based organisations’ global campaign for debt cancellation by the year 2000 that made the imperialist creditors susceptible to such negotiations to rebuild the legitimacy of neoliberal capitalism, which was being challenged from below.
The Jubilee 2000 coalition and “Drop the Debts” movement had been at the forefront of these campaigns since the early 1990s. And some of their experts contributed significantly to helping Iweala to secure favourable results from the negotiations.
Third, the debt cancellation did not come free. Global capital insisted on strict compliance with the neoliberal agenda. This is one of the reasons why the Olusegun Obasanjo-led PDP government subsequently went on overdrive with privatisation and “public sector reforms” which worsened the working and living conditions of poor working people. More than 300 state-owned companies were privatised, costing almost 4m people their jobs.
Fourth, there were allegations that she and her family members benefited immensely, from the negotiations (in millions of dollars!), by using fronts as consultants. While she denied this and evidence was hard to come by, it is not impossible that she was simply good at covering her trail.
Looking forward, can Africa’s working-class people and poor women expect any difference from the WTO because of her appointment, despite and not because of her track record?
First and foremost, working-class people and their organisations must be clear that multilateral organisations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization are not neutral.
They were established by the bosses to promote capitalist exploitation of the poor masses. They are also designed to defend the imperialist interests of the rich people and corporations in advanced capitalist countries.
To think we can make fundamental changes to the unjust way the world is run through these institutions is to deceive and thus disempower ourselves. Our aim must be to smash them, along with the capitalist states in our countries.
We will then build new institutions of freely associating working-class people from below, which we can use to build a better world based on solidarity, cooperation, and the all-round development of everybody. As we wage this revolutionary socialist struggle for system change, we can and must win concessions to improve our lives and strengthen our struggle.
With the WTO and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, we must draw the correct lessons from the real facts behind the Paris Club negotiations. It is not out of the benevolence of capitalists in power like her that we can win such concessions. It is by creating the enabling environment which leaves them little choice but to give in to our demands.
The most critical demand of the moment, for Africa and the developing world is waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines.
Universal access to vaccination is not possible with just a few big pharmaceutical corporations producing vaccines at costs that most developing countries cannot afford. These corporations are making super-profits because they have copyrights to the vaccines based on the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)
Rich capitalist countries where they are based, and which can afford the vaccines at such exorbitant prices, support the continued application of the TRIPS copyright. But momentum is rising for demands for the TRIPS waiver. Trade unions and civil society organisations from the Global South and even the World Health Organization have asked for it.
Instead of questionable congratulations, workers’ organisations in Nigeria and Africa should turn up the waiver demand pressure on Okonjo-Iweala and the WTO. This is a battle for reform that we can win. Just as with debt cancellation, the advanced capitalist countries and corporations might be forced to concede to salvage the constructed legitimacy of the system they represent.
And we must not stop at that. We must also challenge the various neoliberal trade rules. They are used to foster deregulation, privatisation, and other for-profit neoliberal policies at the detriment of working-class people and poor capitalist countries.
Ngozi Okono-Iweala and the WTO do not represent workers’, women’s, or Africa’s interests. They serve global capitalism. We must win what we can from them as we fight to smash the capitalist system. It is not for us to congratulate “NOI”. We must rather present working-class demands to win whatever concessions we can from WTO as we fight to overturn it and the system it represents.
It is also important to stress that our politics, or whomever we support as working-class people, under any condition, must not be based on “brands”. The very idea of “brand” and branding should be offensive to us, considering its material origin and development as an ideological.
Branding was the marking of goods and property to show ownership. This started in Europe with properties like cattle and goats. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade period, human beings kidnapped from Africa and enslaved were branded by slave-owners, equally to denote ownership.
Today brands are used by different sections of the ruling class to give an illusion of choice. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a brand of the bosses. They all stand for the same thing – our exploitation. We must not be their slaves.
by Nnamdi IKEAGU