Okonjo-Iweala Emerges First female, First African World Trade Organisation Chief
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Okonjo-Iweala Emerges First female, First African World Trade Organisation Chief

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) members on Monday elected Nigerian economist, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to be the next director-general of the organization.

She will be the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO.

“WTO members have just agreed to appoint Dr Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director-General of the WTO.

The decision was taken at a special meeting today of the organisation’s General Council.

“Dr Okonjo-Iweala will become the first woman and the first African to head the WTO,” the WTO said in a statement.

Okonjo-Iweala will assume duties on March 1, while her term will expire on Aug. 31, 2025, but it could be renewed, the organisation noted.

Fellow female leaders, such as European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde, have already congratulated Okonjo-Iweala on the appointment.

“This is an historic moment for the entire world. I’m so glad to see a woman from Africa at the head. Europe is fully behind you.

“We support the reform of the WTO and will help you protect the rules-based multilateral trading system,”Von der Leyen said on Twitter.

Lagarde noted that she has “known Ngozi for many years. Her strong will and determination will drive her to tirelessly promote free trade to the benefit of people worldwide.”

Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment follows months of deadlocked discussions between the WTO members on who should be chosen as the next director-general since former chief Roberto Azevedo stepped down in August, a year earlier than his second four-year term was set to end.

The delays in the appointment of WTO chief reportedly stemmed from the reluctance of former U.S. President Donald Trump to approve the Nigerian economist’s candidacy.

The Trump administration favoured South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee.

However, after Joe Biden assumed presidency, the South Korean minister decided to quit the race paving the way for Okonjo-Iweala’s selection.

The economist and expert in international finance and development is regarded as a skilled negotiator and consensus builder, having gathered experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America.

The 66-year-old chairs the GAVI Vaccine Alliance and sits on the board of Twitter.

She was recently appointed African Union Special Envoy for the continent’s access to the COVID-19 tools accelerator.

Okonjo-Iweala spent 25 years as a development economist at the World Bank, during which she quickly rose through the ranks to become managing director of operations.

She spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during both food and financial crises, generating more than 40 billion dollars for the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s grant and soft credit arm.

Okonjo-Iweala twice served as Nigerian finance minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) and briefly acted as foreign minister in 2006.

She was the first Nigerian woman to hold both positions.

She earned an economics degree from Harvard University (1976), graduating magna cum laude, a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received 15 honorary degrees from universities across the world.

Okonjo-Iweala is the author of numerous books and articles on finance and economics.

Transparency International named her one of eight inspirational female anti-corruption fighters in 2019, while Fortune Magazine called her one of the 50 greatest world leaders in 2015.

In 2014, Time Magazine listed her among the top 100 most influential people in the world. Okonjo-Iweala is married with four children and has three grandchildren.

History is made: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala chosen as 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.

Dr 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.”

The General Council decision follows months of uncertainty which arose when the United States initially refused to join the consensus around Dr Okonjo-Iweala and threw its support behind Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea.

But following Ms Yoo’s decision on 5 February to withdraw her candidacy, the administration of newly elected US President Joseph R. Biden Jr. dropped the US objection and announced instead that Washington extends its “strong support” to the candidacy of Dr Okonjo-Iweala.

Amb. Walker extended his 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”.

The General Council agreed on 31 July that there would be three stages of consultations held over a two-month period commencing 7 September.

During these confidential consultations, the field of candidates was narrowed from eight to five and then two.

On 28 October, General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand had informed members that based on consultations with all delegations Dr Okonjo-Iweala was best poised to attain consensus of the 164 WTO members and that she had the deepest and the broadest support among the membership.

At that meeting, the United States was the only WTO member which said it could not join the consensus.

The consultation process undertaken by the chair and facilitators was established through guidelines agreed by all WTO members in a 2002 General Council decision.

These guidelines spelled out the key criteria in determining the candidate best positioned to gain consensus is the “breadth of support” each candidate receives from the members.

During the DG selection processes of 2005 and 2013, breadth of support was defined as “the distribution of preferences across geographic regions and among the categories of members generally recognized in WTO provisions: that is (Least developed countries), developing countries and developed countries”.

This same process, agreed by all members in the General Council in 2020, was strictly followed by Chair Walker and his colleagues throughout the 2020-21 DG selection process.

The process for selecting a new Director-General was triggered on 14 May when former Director-General Mr Roberto Azevêdo informed WTO members he would be stepping down from his post one year before the expiry of his mandate. He subsequently left office on 31 August.

Okonjo-Iweala Emerges First female, First African World Trade Organisation Chief