Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala named first female, African WTO boss

Robin MILLARD
·4-min read

Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed Monday as the first female and first African head of the beleaguered World Trade Organization, saying a stronger WTO would be vital for the global coronavirus recovery.

The global trade body called a virtual special general council meeting at which member states officially selected the former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank veteran as its new director-general.

The near-paralysed institution desperately needs a reboot -- something Okonjo-Iweala immediately addressed after her coronation.

"A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic," the 66-year-old economist said in a statement.

"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."

Okonjo-Iweala will take up her post on March 1 and her term, which is renewable, will run until August 31, 2025.

"She was not chosen because she is female or because she is from Africa, but because... she stood out as the candidate with the best qualifications, experience and qualities for the daunting task," a Western diplomat told AFP.

- US backing -

The Geneva-based WTO has been leaderless since Brazilian career diplomat Roberto Azevedo stepped down last August, a year ahead of schedule.

The 164-member organisation appoints its leaders through a consensus-finding process.

The eight candidates were meant to have been whittled down to one by November, but former US president Donald Trump's administration stood alone in blocking the consensus around Okonjo-Iweala.

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, the last rival standing, pulled out on February 5 as it became clear that new US President Joe Biden was swinging behind Okonjo-Iweala.

"The United States is eager to work with Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to ensure this institution lives up to its full potential as a body that promotes equitable economic growth through trade," US diplomat David Bisbee told Monday's meeting.

He underlined that she had promised it would "not be business as usual" at the WTO under her direction.

Okonjo-Iweala becomes the organisation's seventh director-general since its creation in 1995.

The Nigerian, who boasted US, EU and African backing, celebrated her appointment with her sister, at her home outside Washington.

- Multiple crises-

She will take over an organisation mired in multiple crises. Even before Covid-19 battered the global economy, the WTO was weighed down by stalled trade talks and struggled to curb trade tensions between the United States and China.

The WTO had also faced relentless attacks from the Trump administration which, among other things, brought its dispute settlement appeal system to a grinding halt in late 2019.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen called it a "historic moment for the entire world", and pledged Europe's full backing for Okonjo-Iweala.

"We support the reform of the WTO and will help you protect the rules-based multilateral trading system," she added.

EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said the WTO needed to be "recast with up-to-date rules fit for today's world", focusing on digitally transforming the global economy.

- Trailblazer -

Twice Nigeria's finance minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) and its first female foreign minister in a two-month stint in 2006, Okonjo-Iweala is seen as a trailblazer in her homeland.

A development economist by training with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, Okonjo-Iweala has also had a 25-year career as a development economist at the World Bank, eventually becoming its number two.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari "believes her track record of integrity, diligence and passion for development will continue to yield positive results and rewards to mankind", his office said.

Okonjo-Iweala has brushed off claims she lacks experience as a trade minister or negotiator, putting the emphasis on her drive.

European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde said: "Her strong will and determination will drive her to tirelessly promote free trade to the benefit of people worldwide."

Okonjo-Iweala has portrayed herself as a champion against Nigeria's rampant corruption -- saying her own mother was even kidnapped over her attempts to tackle the scourge.

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