History was made on Monday, February 15, 2021 when Nigeria’s former Finance and Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, emerged the Director-General (DG) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Thus, she became the first African and the first woman to clinch the position. Her emergence, in the words of the General Council Chair of the WTO, David Walker of New Zealand, “is a very significant moment for the WTO.” It is also a true reflection of the resilience of the African woman.
Her selection as the seventh Director-General was by consensus of the General Council of the WTO. Her major contender, the Trade Minister of the Republic of Korea, Ms Yoo Myung-hee, dropped her ambition earlier on February 5. Eight candidates initially participated in the selection process which was triggered on May 14 when the former DG, Mr. Roberto Azevêdo, announced that he would be stepping down, one year before the expiration of his mandate. It was later narrowed to five candidates and then to two.
Based on consultations with all delegations, General Council Chair, Walker, informed members on October 28 that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was best suited to attain the consensus of the 164 members. Only the United States refused to join the consensus then. Former United States President, Donald Trump, had supported Ms Yoo and opposed Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy. But with Trump out of the way after losing the presidential election, the newly elected President Joe Biden extended the US strong support for the Nigerian woman. Thus, the coast became very clear for her to clinch the position.
Now that she has triumphed, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has a huge task before her. She is assuming the position at a time when the global trade and economy are buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In full realisation of this fact, she reportedly noted that “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.”
Born in 1954 in Nigeria, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala experienced the brutal Nigerian Civil War as a teenager. She received her primary education in Nigeria and later moved to the United States where she graduated from Harvard University in 1976. She later obtained her PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She worked as a development economist at the World Bank in Washington DC for 25 years.
In 2003, the then President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed her the Finance Minister. She was in this position for three years and later returned in 2011 to take up the role again. Her major achievement then was helping to stabilise the Nigerian economy. She also negotiated Nigeria’s exit from the Paris Club of debtors with a write-off of $18 billion debt for Nigeria. She was to later appointed the minister of Foreign Affairs.
Okonjo-Iweala had a five-year term as the board chair of GAVI, a global alliance to make life-saving vaccines available for low-income countries. She had reportedly noted that facilitating enhanced distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and protective equipment would be high on her agenda at the Switzerland-based WTO. She has also been a co-Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, an initiative to make climate change a major issue in global economic policy.
We believe she will bring her experiences to bear on her new job. Her vision for the trade organisation is to see “a rejuvenated and strengthened WTO that will be confident to tackle effectively ongoing issues.” Many countries no longer adhere to the norms governing international trade. Okonjo-Iweala had observed that the WTO appeared paralysed this time round.
As she reportedly observed: “There’s much mistrust within the WTO: it’s not just between the US and China. It’s between the US and Europe; it’s between Europe and China; it’s between developing and developed countries.” She has promised to bridge the gap among these groups.
She will also need to clean the mess the Trump administration left behind. The WTO, for instance, was unable to rule on trade disputes because Trump blocked new appointments to its appellate body. As a result of this, Trump’s tariffs had a free pass. We believe Okonjo-Iweala knows what to do to bring the panel back to shape. She must also ensure that the global trade is balanced and that Africa becomes a major player in WTO. African countries, in turn, should make their products attractive to global market.