Our own Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian, nay African pride, and toast of the international community, assumed duty on Monday March 1, 2021 as the Director General of the World Trade Organisation, WTO the global trade referee. It is historic, epochal and a humongous milestone. Okonjo-Iweala shattered the glass ceiling to smithereens to emerge the first woman ever to wear a cap that had been the exclusive possession of the men in the 73-year history of the WTO, (which replaced the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT) and the first from the African continent to boot. Watching Madam Ngozi (as she is fondly called) arrive the headquarters of the organization in Geneva in a blaze of glory to take over as the new helmsman (or is it helmswoman?) where she would direct global trade in the next four years, into the waiting hands of her new team, gave me goose bumps. To be candid, it literally made my head swell (Ori mi wu as Yoruba would say) with a sense of pride and admiration, first as a woman, and then as a Nigerian and African.
It cannot but be so. Okonjo-Iweala’s meteoric rise to fame and global recognition which has catapulted her to the present Olympian height that is being celebrated ecstatically today could be better appreciated when considered against the cultural barriers and prejudices that had stunted the development and actualisation of the potentials and aspirations of many a girl child in our clime. But Madam Ngozi came out of the blues to break the cycle of male dominance of the top job at WTO.
Ours is a patriarchal society and that is why women who have achieved great feats would tell you for free that they had had to toil much harder than their male counterparts to be where they are. Ask women politicians; they can tell it better. I doubt if anyone was disappointed when our president, Muhammadu Buhari, tried to put down his wife, Aisha, in order to save his face before the global community, saying derisively that “She belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room”.
The activist first lady, who would defy all cultural and religious inhibitions to speak her mind, caring less about the backlash, had said as a matter of fact in an interview with the BBC, Hausa service that she would not campaign with her husband in 2019 for a second term in office. Aisha, who for whatever reason, has for some months now disappeared without explanation, from the home front and the political radar, was dissatisfied with the strange elements that dominated her husband’s cabinet.
What may however have shocked and disappointed many was the forum the president chose to respond to his wife’s outburst in far away Berlin, Germany, and before one of the most powerful women in the world – Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.
With this jaundiced perception of the role of women by Nigeria’s number one citizen, is it any surprise that no woman has ever been elected governor in this country? Virginia Ngozi (yes, another Ngozi) Etiaba of Anambra State, the only woman who has ever occupied that office, albeit in acting capacity, had done so by default. It was more of a stop gap arrangement, as she had to hold the forte for Peter Obi for just three months – November 2006 to February 2007 – when he was fighting his impeachment in court. And when you take a look at the National Assembly where women are grossly under-represented, the female population there is abysmal with a paltry seven out of 109 members in the Senate, and 11 out of 360 in the House of Representatives.
Thus, Okonjo-Iweala’s emergence as the Numero uno in the world market is, to her as an individual, and the womenfolk in general, a prodigious feat which only goes to showcase what is possible in an environment of equal opportunities for both the male and the female gender. Some would argue that she had been lucky to have been born with the proverbial silver spoon in the mouth being a princess of the Ogwashi-Uku royal family and having acquired the best education available, especially in prestigious Ivy League universities, studying development economics at Harvard, and a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. But from what we’ve seen around here, not all those who were privileged to have attended such high brow, world class institutions have done well for themselves not to talk of adding value to the society. Some have exhibited the mentality of a Boko Haram, and displayed such pitiable imbecility in furtherance of their parochial religious and ethnic interests, while some get attention for their nuisance value.
And that is why the euphoria of Madam Ngozi’s ground breaking achievement as the new WTO DG may not go away any time soon. It is exhilarating, heart warming, and indeed intoxicating. For me, it is a most pleasant, positive, and welcome distraction from the many troubles presently plaguing our country as our attention is temporarily shifted away from the warlike atmosphere at home with some northern elements thinking they could blackmail the south with their ill-advised food blockade so that their killer Fulani herdsmen can continue to ride roughshod on their hosts like an army of occupation, killing, maiming, razing their homes, raping their wives, defiling their daughters, and feeding their farm produce to their tired cattle. But they ended up cutting their nose to spite their face.
Thanks to NOI for providing us a breath of fresh air in this season of anomie in our country where life has become a living hell and a nightmare in broad daylight. And also for being a worthy role model to thousands of women out there who are now proudly identifying with, and exuberantly flaunting the Okonjo-Iweala brand with her peculiar and distinct way of dressing. Her local Ankara fabrics and signature headgear have become her trademark which albeit, she has graciously permitted to be copied free of charge. It’s quite interesting how the NOI fashion modelling started and caught up with even the male folks.
An ingenious business woman, Temite Giwa-Tubosun ignited the NOI fashion fire and now every woman, even beyond our shores, is scrambling to don the NOI look. Throwing the challenge days before her appointment was announced, an elated Giwa-Tubosun had tweeted: “Hillary [Clinton] had a pantsuit army. We are going to create an #AnkaraArmy for NOI! Get ready, the date is February 15th..,”. And another tweet was to follow February 14, a day to when her appointment was to be formally announced. On her twitter handle, Giwa-Tubosun@temite, she announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s tomorrow! #NoiGoes To WTO! We are giving away N100k to the best dressed! Dress up like NOI and send her a message of support as she goes to WTO! #AnkaraArmy stand up!!!!!”.
On why she did it, she enthused: “I love her. Her story inspires me. She looks like Nigerian-American to me. Both of us are mothers and we look alike a little”. Yes, who doesn’t like something good? We all love to associate with success. Failure is an orphan, and success has many parents.
Fascinating as the initiative was, I dare say there is more to Okonjo-Iweala than her unique fashion style that every woman wants to copy. Her style defines her – her persona, and everything that she stands for. Business-like, serious-minded, modest, humble, honest, and prudent. These are qualities that are not common with women of such lofty and intimidating stature in our environment. One cannot easily forget that while she held sway as Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister for the economy, she had a counterpart in another sensitive ministry in the Goodluck Jonathan administration whose extravagant, outlandish and luxurious life style gained international notoriety – private jets, yatchs, expensive jewelry, designer bags, and wrist watches. But while Madam Ngozi has continued to soar high like the Eagle, hugging the limelight on the global stage, her shamed counterpart, now pitiably tucked away somewhere abroad, and living a low profile life away from the klieg lights for fear of being noticed, is being hunted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. A case of two vessels – one to honour, the other to dishonour, according to the Bible.
For me, Madam Ngozi’s African print fabrics, and her signature ‘gele’ represent who she is and what she stands for. By choosing to dress in our local Ankara is a bold statement about her sincerity of purpose and sense of patriotism; it marks her out as a leader who practices what she preaches. As finance minister, she preached prudence in management of resources and tried to inculcate the culture of savings and financial discipline in governance by establishing the Sovereign Wealth Fund as a buffer for the economy against the raining day, a policy that was fiercely resisted by the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and championed by the current Transportation Minister, Rotimi Amaechi who, as governor of Rivers State, was chairman of the NGF. And when President Buhari started to grumble that previous administration left no savings, Amaechi did not have the courage to admit that he and his colleagues insisted on living for the day and allow tomorrow take care of itself.
But Madam Ngozi was more financially wise and strategic unlike the prodigal and myopic governors. She encouraged patronage of made in Nigeria products as a way of conserving foreign exchange and boost local production. In one of her statements, she said “These are difficult times, no doubt about it. However and whatever we feel, still good to eat, wear and buy Nigerian as much as we can to help spur the economy. At home enjoying delicious O & B kilishi and peanuts o and b foods”.
And as for her peculiar headgear, it depicts a woman always on the go, and a good manager of time and resources; not given to spend long hours in the salon making one million braids or spending ridiculous amounts of money in local and foreign currencies buying human hair as status symbol. When Madam Ngozi is not wearing her signature gele, which she has mastered and could tie in a jiffy without spending endless hours in front of a mirror, she wears her natural low cut. And she is ever so proud to flaunt her graying hair.
Suffice to say that whatever attention NOI is getting is well-deserved. However, the Buhari administration must do more than celebrate her as a good ambassador of the country, but rather be inspired by the ideals she stands for and how the country can benefit from her position. This is the time to leverage on the popularity she has given to our local fabrics by formulating policies that would further promote patronage at home and beyond our shores. It would not be a bad idea for instance if the federal government introduces the policy of wearing of local fabrics to work for certain days in a week by civil servants and corporate organizations. That way, we would be encouraging local production and revive most of our moribund textile industries.
It is doable; what is required is the political will to enforce it. Recently, Ghana introduced the use of local fabrics as school uniforms and it was well celebrated. But this is not novel. It started here in Nigeria. I can remember that the uniform of the secondary school my daughter attended, Presentation National High School, PNHS Benin City, Edo State, was made from tie-and die fabrics, what is popularly known as ‘Adire’. And it has not been changed. Perhaps if other schools had taken a cue from PNHS, a Catholic school, a big market would have been created for the fabric. And with Madam Ngozi at the helm of affairs at WTO, it’s an opportunity to explore that market at a global level.
And for all the girls and young women out there copying her style, one lesson they must imbibe is that her achievements were no mere happenstance. She earned every bit of it. She was focused; she kept her eye on the ball. She was determined, disciplined, hard-working, and burnt the midnight oil to acquire good education. She was well honed in her chosen career as development economist and financial expert. For those who may not know, her WTO top job is not her first international appointment. It’s just another royal diadem for the Ogwashi-Uku princess who spent over 21 years as a development economist at the World Bank, rising to the number two position in 2007. She is also on record as the first woman to run for the presidency of the organisation.
An appreciative Okonjo-Iweala did not take all the fuss over her for granted. Responding, she tweeted February 27: “This beautiful young girl and all other adorable young girls and young women modeling my look just make me feel humble and blessed. Thank you. You shall all be great and greater than your model by God’s grace”.
I can hear thunderous and reverberating AMENs. See you at the top. NOI, you are a great inspiration. Here’s wishing you a successful tour of duty at WTO!
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