Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the newly appointed director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In this interview session anchored by Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, during the 8th Lagos economic summit, otherwise known as Ehingbeti, in Lagos on Tuesday, Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former minister of finance, speaks on her new appointment at WTO, the theme of the summit, women, and youths empowerment, development of the African continent, among other issues. …. reports
Congratulations on your emergence as the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). As the first female and African to hold that position, we are truly excited. What has the journey been like?
Thank You so much your Excellency. It is wonderful to be with you. I am also one of your citizens; I have a place in VGC (Victoria Garden City). So, I know very much parts of Lagos State. The word is fantastic but I want to start by humbly thanking His Excellency, Mr. President (President Muhammadu Buhari), thanking all Nigerians for your support and encouragement. And I mean it sincerely, throughout the whole process, which has been very difficult, taking almost nine months of competition, waiting and uncertainty. Nigerians have been absolutely incredible, sending me messages of support, going on the Internet. Some people have been making videos and releasing them. So, I feel incredibly blessed and I am happy that it came out well and therefore we can try to show what Nigerians and Africans can do in such an international position. It is going to be very challenging but I feel ready; as everyone says, in every challenge, there is an opportunity. So, it would be important to see what can be done with all the countries around the world.
We are certain that you are going to do a great job and talking about great jobs, Africa itself has not done a great job yet; we are a work in progress. My first question to you would be, you sitting back and looking forward, what will a successful Africa look like and where do you think Lagos can sit in that context, given the fact that Lagos is today the largest megacity in Africa and it is the economic hub of Nigeria? What does a successful Africa look like in your view and where does Lagos sit in that?
Thank you so much your Excellency; this is a great question. From my point of view, one of the most important things a successful Africa should look at is the demography of Africa. When you have 60 per cent or more of your population that is 30 years old younger, then you ought to worry about job creation. So, for me, a successful African is Africa that is able to create jobs for its citizens. And when I say jobs, I mean what I will call decent works. Like I said in my WTO acceptance speech yesterday (Monday), that is biggest issue the continent has to face. And similarly, Lagos State, the issue of employment of young people who are gainfully employed is important because if they are not, that would lead to so many social dislocations and unrest.
So, first and foremost a successful Africa and a successful Lagos State is the one that will create jobs for its citizens and this means two or three things. I think we have to concentrate our minds on the continent, in our country, Nigeria and Lagos State about how we will create modern decent jobs for our young people and we have a great opportunity to do that. One of the things that are very difficult for continent, Nigeria and Lagos State now is the fact that we are still mainly a raw materials-based kind of economy. I know Lagos is a manufacturing hub but if you look at the whole of Africa, we are still mainly exporting primary products; whether it is fossil fuel like we have in Nigeria’s oil and gas, Angola and Mozambique and so on, or it is minerals like diamonds, tin, copper and other things from other countries or agricultural products like cocoa, coffee and so on.
So, we have to get from a position where we exporting raw materials to one where we are adding more value and processing. I listened to you (Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu) talking about Lagos becoming an agro-processing centre, notwithstanding the fact that its land area is the smallest in the country. So for Lagos, Nigeria and the continent, we have to ask ourselves the big question, how do we industrialize Africa? The Agenda 2063 of the African Union looks very much at how we can get there. Let me just give you one or two examples where I think opportunities can be seized. Africa imports more than 90 per cent of the pharmaceutical products that we use on the continent. So, that is a big gap and there is an opportunity for us to manufacture those products. We have a market of 1.3 billion people, equivalent to China or India and with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement that is now under implementation, actually is aiming at the common market, free borders when it actually works. What does it mean? It means Nigeria’s labours should look at how they can take advantage of such a big market, to make Nigeria not just a consumer centre where other people sends goods but a big manufacturing centre that sends goods to other countries. So, that is a dream.
Apart from manufacturing, we have the creative art that you (Governor Sanwo-Olu) mentioned; services. Lagos is one of the most exciting cities, it is one of the most difficult but I love it because you never know what is around the corner. When I am in Lagos, I always discover a surprise in any part of the city; a lot to do with the art. So how can you make the creative arts, the movie industry? Part of it is centred there; create more jobs for our young people. You mentioned medical services; I want you to know that in Ghana, they are also planning to make the whole of Ghana a medical tourism hub. I was speaking to the Minister of Finance and hoping that they can link with Nigeria so they can focus on some specialties and we also focus on some. So, it is not Nigerians just going there to avail themselves of some services but Ghanaians and others also coming to Nigeria for those medical services. There are so many exciting opportunities of what Lagos State can do and what Africa can do and we have to put in mind who we are doing it for, which is our youths.
With the African Free Trades Agreement, we realised that we do less within ourselves. Statistics have shown that it is always from Europe, China and America but we do less internally and like you said it is only when we collaborate and do a lot with Africans internally that we can indeed create those jobs and opportunities for ourselves. Given the theme of the Lagos Economy Summit (Ehingbeti 2021) “For a Greater Lagos: Setting the tone for the next decade” and looking at Lagos for the next 10 years, where do you see us, what are those pitfalls that we need to avoid? What are those things that can make us a lot more competitive, more responsive and we can indeed build a Lagos that you are really proud of for the next decade? What kind of advice and input can you give us in helping Lagos to achieve that dream that we all dream about?
Thank you Your Excellency; you are asking very good question. I listened to Mo Ibrahim (Founder and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation) talking of the future, so I said jobs for the youths. The future is changing and it is very dynamic and so the future is artificial intelligence; it is digital economy. It is here to stay and we cannot do anything about that. So, either Nigeria, Lagos or Africa get on board or we get left behind. So, one of the things that I heard you talk about is a broadband, internet access to all households. If we can do that; this is what they have in a whole country like Korea, the whole place is wired, so everybody can be on the internet. So, when you talk about the jobs of the future, if we have broadband access that is fantastic; that is my main thing. I think the biggest challenge for Lagos State is infrastructure. If you don’t get the infrastructure right and I mean infrastructure of the future, not just roads and other things that cause bottleneck. Of course to have telecommunications infrastructure broadband, you also need electricity and energy. So, one of the things you have to make sure the state takes on board is how to have a steady and sustainable supply of electricity and in saying that, we should also be looking at how to move renewable and green, because the world is also turning green very rapidly.
I know that my brother, Aliko Dangote, is building the biggest refinery; we should have done that a long time ago, so we are glad we have it, petrochemicals in Lekki. But we also need to add to that, we should start looking green, how do we move to renewable? Those are three things, infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure for a Lagos of the future. The population is growing, if we don’t keep up with infrastructure, what we will end up with is bottlenecks. If you can really make it modern, forward looking infrastructure, that is what we need.
The world like I said is going digital; that is, e-commerce is here to stay; I mean the amount of transactions in e-commerce now that is ongoing. In the United States, it is over $500 billion with a net fix to the US of over 200 billion; that shows you the direction in which it is going. How can we tap into that digital economy? The reason I am excited about this and looking at negotiating the e-commerce agreement at WTO is because I feel that our countries and cities can benefit. We have small and medium enterprises, I would like to see many women doing this on the digital platform, and I will end by saying that we are lucky because our young people have started doing this. When you go out and you actually see what many of them are doing, you will be very proud; from e-payment system to all kinds of system on the digital platforms. All we really need to do is give them the basic infrastructure, encourage them, let us have some venture capital that invests in our own businesses. That is the problem we have. We don’t truly have the venture capital that can help encourage some of these businesses, so that they can grow. These are some of the things I think we have to watch out for.
You know that you are an icon in this country not only to the male but also to the female. You are a beacon of inspiration to everyone. What kind of advice do you have for us to have some seemingly gender balance? Talking about women and our youth, what broad advice do you have in terms of empowering them and opening up the space for our women and youths for the next decade?
I am very proud of Nigerian and African women because of the way they multitask and manage so many things; career, work, business along with their families, children and so on is amazing. But we really need to give women and youths a bigger platform. I have just written a book with a former Prime Minister of Australia. I didn’t know you will ask this question but on my table here, I have the book, it is a latest book, it came out in the United States two weeks ago. It is titled: “Women and leadership: Real life, real lessons.”
What a coincidence…
The book is a brand new book and we have been doing the book tour. The book talks about the lessons we need to learn from women leaders. We interviewed eight women leaders, from Theresa May to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to Hillary Clinton; eight very important women and we add to them lessons from our own experiences to say, what is it that women need to do to break into leadership because no matter what we say they are not yet there. I have focused on women for a moment and I will give a few statistics why we felt we have to write this book. The United Nations has 193 members and out of those 193 countries, only 57 have ever had women leaders at one time or the other. As we speak, there are about 14 to 15 women leaders. People will say it is progress; they were only four in 2000, now we are 14 but at the pace of growth, it will take us decades in other to get gender parity in terms of women leadership. Everywhere you go, Nobel Prize winners, since the Nobel Prize started been awarded in the early 20th century, we have had 900 Nobel Prize winners and out of those 900, only 53 had been women. Looking at the parliaments all over the world, one in four parliamentarians globally is a woman. If you look at cabinets, 21 per cent of cabinets globally are women. If you look at different fields, engineering, 15 per cent are women. I could go on and on.
For every dollar earned by a man globally, a woman earns 63 cents. We talked about all that in the book and we say here are the lessons; there are things that women can do. But why I am saying all these things is because we are also saying it cannot happen without men. So, Your Excellency, our men have to decide to empower women because they are the ones who are holding the power and the jugs. So, unless they also agree to empower women and give a chance, we are not going to get there. So it is not only women just talking to women about issues of women empowerment or youths empowerment, we got to have dialogue with the men.
So, Your Excellency, I will start with you and ask you, how many leadership jobs are you going to open up for women? I know Lagos State has done very well, you have had female deputy governors, you have many female commissioners, you have excellent captains of industries who are women like my sister, Ibukun Awosika, the WIMBIZ women and many other women. I am very proud of them but I want you to talk to the other governors on how you are going to open up leadership positions for women because we cannot be empowered unless the men agree to empower us. Similarly for our youths, we can’t make road unless we all together create the opportunities for them to lead. So, I am bringing back the questions to you, your Excellency and before I go, I want to hear from you what you are going to do to help open up spaces for women and persuade your fellow governors to do more for women.
Thank You Madam. I will just tell you that this is very critical for us in Lagos and I dare say that we are humbled that in our cabinet, we have 35 per cent women; we have about 65 per cent women among our Permanent Secretaries; our judges, we have about 60 to 65 per cent that are women. In all of the critical arms in Lagos State, there are more women but we still want to do more. Women head the three critical ministries or agencies in Lagos today. A woman is the head of Works and Infrastructure, a woman is the head of LAMATA and the head of the renewal and rebuild agency. We are doing great but we also want to do more. We know that there are a lot of other opportunities that we can bring forward for our youths and women. I want to assure you that Lagos will continue to take a lead on this and we are truly excited that you have actually written a book and I want say to you that you got a great fan here that are not only women but men as well. I want to use this opportunity to say to you that we wish you all the very best on this new global stage that you are. We are convinced that you will certainly put in your very best, and putting in your very best means that you will come out of it without blemish and you will do a good job that every Nigerian, African, Lagosian will be truly proud of. I want to wish you all the very best. I want to thank you for being part of our discussion today and we want to wish you all the very best.
Thank you, your Excellency, and a shout out to all Nigerians as my son would say. Thank you so much. And to the women, love you all, keep it up. And Governor, congratulations for doing so much.