Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former two-time Nigerian finance minister, an economist whose background is in international development,  was appointed Monday to  be the next director-general of the World Trade Organization. She is the first African and the first woman to lead the body, which governs trade rules between nations. The organisation has never been led by an African, despite Africa representing 27 percent of the WTO’s membership, with 35 percent members from developing countries. In fact, the United Nations itself — since its inception in 1945 — has never had a woman in the number one spot. However, this is not the first time that Okonjo-Iweala makes history.

Born in Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala graduated from Harvard University in 1976 and then earned a PhD from MIT. She then became the first woman to take on the Nigerian finance ministry and the foreign ministry too. She was also the first female to run for the World Bank presidency, where she spent 25 years. She also holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Nigeria.

“This is a very significant moment for the WTO,” David Walker, the WTO’s General Council chair, said in a statement. Okonjo-Iweala said she was “honoured” to be selected to lead the organization and vowed to take on global economic and health challenges brought on by the coronavirus 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,” Okonjo-Iweala said.

Okonjo-Iweala takes over a beleaguered organization that is facing a slew of challenges that have hobbled the WTO in recent years, including how to best manage the increased friction between economic superpowers the United States and China. Critics of the organization said it has failed to intervene over some of China’s most egregious economic offenses, which in turn has let the U.S. name its economic adversary a currency manipulator and impose or threaten billions of dollars in tariffs on goods from China. There is also a fragile issue of determining whether the U.S. broke WTO rules when the Trump administration, citing national security concerns, unilaterally boosted tariffs on steel and aluminum in 2018, Politico reports.

Okonjo-Iweala’s ascension to the top of the WTO comes just months after the Trump administration moved to block her candidacy and instead throw its support behind another candidate, South Korea Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. They believed she had more trade experience, an impasse that left the organization without a leader for several months. Indeed The race for the job has been frozen since 6 November when it emerged that Okonjo-Iweala had support from over 70% of the WTO members. At that point, the WTO administrators suspended the election process indefinitely. Diplomats in Geneva said that decision was to see whether the US would change its position if Trump lost the presidential election that month. After the Biden administration came into office, Ms. Yoo withdrew her candidacy on February 5th  and the United States announced its support for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

“[She] brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister,” the Feb. 5 statement read. “She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”

What does her appointment mean for Nigeria and Africa?

Although the job is a difficult one, it is a great opportunity, particularly due to the synchronicity with the launching of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). This, if all goes to plan, will be the biggest geographical  trading bloc in the world. As the leader of the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala can ensure that Africa is not left out of important discussions and policies, more important than ever now due to the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As the youngest and fastest growing continent in the world, Africa’s population will be of critical importance to the international system over the coming decades, as its economies accelerate from their current low base. To have an African economist at the helm of global trade policy is a great strategic win for the continent. The bottom line is the really hard work  is starting now : trying to rebuild a consensus around multilateral trade cooperation in an era of cut-throat economic nationalism. Okonjo-Iweala officially takes over the WTO’s top post on March 1. Her term is set to go through August 2025. In a news conference with reporters on Monday, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said her initial priorities would include working with other international organizations to create lasting rules for responding to pandemics and making progress in two negotiations over fishery subsidies and digital trade.


Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in her acceptance speech Monday. Credit…Eric Baradat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It’s been a long and tough road, full of uncertainty, but now it’s the dawn of a new day and the real work can begin,” she said. “The challenges facing the W.T.O. are numerous and tricky, but they are not insurmountable.” Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

By Alizé­ Utteryn 02/15/2021

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