From Uche Usim, Abuja
History was made at exactly 3:29 pm (Nigerian time) on Monday, as the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation (WTO) tweeted the confirmation of the appointment of Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as Director-General of the global trade body. Her term starts on March 1.
Okonjo-Iweala becomes the first woman and first African to clinch the plum job.
The announcement of Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment ends months of suspense, anxiety and global politicking.
Additional tweets from WTO stated that members of the global trade body took the decision to appoint her at a special meeting of the General Council, following a selection process that included eight candidates from around the world.
According to the statement released, ‘WTO members made history today (15 February) when the General Council agreed by consensus to select Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria as the organization’s seventh Director-General.
‘When she takes office on 1 March, Dr Okonjo-Iweala will become the first woman and the first African to be chosen as Director-General. Her term, renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.
‘This is a very significant moment for the WTO. On behalf of the General Council, I extend our warmest congratulations to Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on her appointment as the WTO’s next Director-General and formally welcome her to this General Council meeting,” said General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand who, together with co-facilitators Amb. Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Amb. Harald Aspelund (Iceland) led the nine-month DG selection process.
‘Dr Ngozi, on behalf of all members I wish to sincerely thank you for your graciousness in these exceptional months, and for your patience. We look forward to collaborating closely with you, Dr Ngozi, and I am certain that all members will work with you constructively during your tenure as Director-General to shape the future of this organization,’ he added.
On May 14, 2020, the former Director-General of WTO, Mr Roberto Azevêdo, informed members of his plans to step down from his post one year before the expiry of his mandate. He subsequently left office on 31 August.
Nonetheless, Okonjo-Iweala said a key priority for her would be to work with members to quickly address the economic and health consequences brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘I am honoured to have been selected by WTO members as WTO Director-General,” said Dr Okonjo-Iweala. “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 organization 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’s journey to becoming WTO DG began with her nomination by President Muhammadu Buhari on June 5, 2020.
Soon after joining the race, things turned frosty as indications emerged that the United States of America will be a major obstacle stacked against her ambition. The US government under former President Donald Trump initially refused to join the consensus around Dr Okonjo-Iweala. Rather, it threw its weight behind Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of South Korea.
Interestingly, Ms Yoo on February 5 voluntarily withdrew from the race. Consequently, US President Joseph Biden dismantled all roadblocks to Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment and said that Washington extends its ‘strong support’ to the candidacy of Dr Okonjo-Iweala.
WTO extended its thanks to all eight of the candidates who participated in the selection process and particularly to Ms Yoo “for her ongoing commitment to and support for the multilateral trading system and for the WTO”.
Before then, the General Council of WTO agreed on July 31, 2020, that there would be three stages of consultations held over a two-month period commencing September 7, 2020.
Within this period, the number of candidates was reduced from eight to five. As the contest got fiercer, the number of contestants dropped to two.
On October 28 2020, the General Council Chair, David Walker of New Zealand informed members that based on consultations with all delegations, Dr Okonjo-Iweala was best positioned to attain consensus of the 164 WTO members and that she had the deepest and the broadest support among the membership.
Okonjo-Iweala assumes office with a rich resume.
As the Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, she has overseen the annual immunisation of millions of children. As the Managing Director of the World Bank, she oversaw $81 billion worth of operations.
While she was Nigeria’s Finance Minister, she tackled a staggering debt of $30 billion.
There are lots of smaller numbers too: the 20 non-profit organisations that have appointed Okonjo-Iweala to their advisory boards, the major banks and corporations she has advised, the 10 honorary degrees in addition to her own doctorate, 20 or so awards, dozens of major reports authored, and the books.