An African boss at WTO won’t solve AfCFTA challenges – trade expert

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Maame Awinador-Kanyirige

While the appointment of an African as the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation is inspiring and positive for the continent, there should be no expectation that the decision can bring any effect on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, international trade law consultant, Maame Awinador-Kanyirige, has told the B&FT.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) recently appointed Nigerian Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its first ever woman Director-General and the first from Africa to the lead the organization. The news comes at a time when the AfCFTA pact – which is to create one market for the continent and encourage intra-African trade – has taken full flight, thereby, prompting thoughts as to whether new boss can introduce policies which will make the agreement successful.

However, Ms. Awinador-Kanyirige in an interview with the B&FT said the AfCFTA agreement is already confined in the laws of the WTO, hence, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment cannot cause any change in the success or otherwise of the continental agreement.

“Having an African as the Director General of the WTO won’t necessarily have an impact on the African Continental Free Trade Area. Countries that are party to the WTO have subscribed to the WTO law which is the general agreement on tariffs and trade. And article 24 of that law covers free trade and regional agreements. So the AfCFTA has been designed in such a way that it is in accordance with the WTO law. So the entire AfCFTA agreement is restricted within the laws of the WTO. So, an African being at the top doesn’t necessarily affect the AfCFTA.

So there is a difference between having a representation and that representation also being effective. The WTO has struggled when someone from Brazil, another third world country, was at the top. So we should be realistic to understand that having an African at the top doesn’t solve all the problems,” she said.

She rather advised leaders to put in place needed structures to ensure that the AfCFTA works in order to give the new Director-General the capacity to effect policies that will promote effective dispute settlement which has been a major bone of contention in the WTO.

“Her policies can only enforce the existing laws. The best it can do for the AfCFTA is that it can facilitate global trade. AfCFTA is to help intra-African trade so that we can develop or enhance our ability to perform on the global stage. The Director General has said one of her main objectives is to push for fairness.

So we need to empower ourselves so that the fairness will work. Trade agreements are as only effective based on the number of cases that come up. So the more problems that are fixed, the more the agreement becomes better. African countries and other third world countries have complained of unfair trade.

I think Africans must ensure that the AfCFTA works and doesn’t just become like the WTO. If we make the AfCFTA work by putting up the necessary institutions, then, it will rather make her work easier to push for policy if we strengthen ourselves through intra-Africa trade

For example, 70 percent of trade in Europe happens within Europe and that is how they have strengthened themselves as a region. So we need to strengthen ourselves and put in the structures for the AfCFTA to work. When we do that, the new Director-General will have enough capacity to push for substantial change in the dispute settlement system because Africa will be speaking with one voice,” she said.

The new Director-General of the WTO has said her main objective is to push for a stronger WTO that would reverse the devastation caused by the pandemic.

“A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again. Our organisation faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today,” she said.

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