Ngozi, Tedros, Diop. . . Africa’s voice on the global stage

By The Africa Report
Posted on Tuesday, 20 April 2021 14:57

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala addresses a meeting of the World Trade Organization's General Council in Geneva, Switzerland, on 1 March 2021. (WTO/Handout via Xinhua)

African leaders are not happy with the way their countries have been treated by the rest of the world.

Many of them are seeking to band together to make a change at a continental and global level. The Covid-19 pandemic has led more people to speak up. Ghanaian and Nigerian lawmakers rebuked China for racial discrimination against Africans in the country during the pandemic.

Writing in The Africa Report a year ago, former World Bank vice-­president for Africa Obiageli Ezekwesili doubled down on her calls for China to pay reparations for its failure to contain the virus, saying: ‘The unjustified suffering of the poor and vulnerable brought on by the actions of a comparatively rich and powerful country demands a new system for addressing global inequities.’

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni struck a similar pose, seeking debt cancellation: “The external friends, if they are friends at all, should cancel all the multilateral and bilateral loans because this problem [coronavirus] has been created for Africa by Asia.”

There is also anger about how African states are pushed around by bigger, richer countries. “There’s been a selfishness on the part of industrialised nations for decades,” said Côte d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara.

Readers will remember the attempt by the US representative at the African Development Bank board to unseat its president, Nigeria’s Akinwumi Adesina, in May 2020.

Talented technocrats

On trade, the European Union finally agreed to negotiate ‘bloc to bloc’ with the African Union in 2020, rather than conducting trade talks through various bilateral deals. However, with the ­divide-and-conquer route preferred by strong-arm diplomats in Paris (amongst other capitals), that promise has remained a dead letter. With Covid-19 monopolising the global focus, the EU kicked the 2020 EU-Africa meeting into the long grass. A date has still not been set for 2021.

But things may be about to change. A generation of talented African politicians and technocrats are taking up apex positions in important global bodies. They are driving reform agendas that will help the continent to thrive.

Most in the limelight is Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, formerly Ethiopia’s health, then foreign minister, and now director-general of the World Health Organisation. He took office in 2017 and was under fire from officials in the White House of the then-president Donald Trump from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He is not making himself any more popular in the US by asking pharmaceutical companies to waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines.

“We can’t beat Covid without vaccine equity,” said Tedros. “Our world will not recover fast enough without vaccine equity, this is clear.”

He is joined in this fight – and in Geneva – by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister of Nigeria and managing director of the World Bank, who faced her own tussle with Trump-era officials trying to block her nomination as director-­general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

On 1 March, she became the first African and the first woman in the position.

Okonjo-Iweala, who previously chaired the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (Gavi), will likely join forces with Tedros on the issue of intellectual property rights. A debate was held at the WTO in early March, and while Okonjo-Iweala has not taken sides, the question of a patent waiver is now firmly on the table, giving space for opponents of vaccine nationalism.

New-look global architecture

The third tip of the trident of African global leadership is Makhtar Diop. In February, he was appointed as head of the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector wing of the World Bank, where he previously served as vice-president for Africa and then infrastructure. Beating 100 other candidates, Diop now has a chance to shape capital flows to the continent. His priority: digital infrastructure.

There is much to be done. Many African countries were already suffering a debt crisis coming into the pandemic. Last April, Ghana’s finance minister Ken Ofori-Atta spoke of the inequities in the way the current ‘global architecture’ is structured. After much lobbying, the pressure may be paying off.

There has been movement on using the IMF special drawing rights (SDRs, a form of reserve currency kept at the IMF) to finance programmes to rekindle economies. In January, the UN secretary general António Guterres said that SDRs should be part of a global debt relief operation “so that no one is forced to choose between providing basic services for their people or servicing their debts”.

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