Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the African of the Year 2020. She is currently the front-runner for the top post of Director-General of the World Trade Organization. /Photo: Gavi

Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala becomes first woman, African to lead WTO

The World Trade Organisation has confirmed Nigeria’s former Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director-General.

She is the first woman and the first African to lead the international trade body.

According to a statement by the organisation on Monday, her term is scheduled to start on 1 March 2021.

The term, which is renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.

“This is a very significant moment for the WTO,” 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.

WTO members took the decision to appoint Ms Okonjo-Iweala at a special meeting of the General Council, following a selection process that included eight candidates from around the world.

In a press statement posted on WTO’s website, David Walker, the WTO General Council Chair, confirming her appointment said, “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.

“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.”

Quoted in a WTO statement, 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,” she said. “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 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.

How Okonjo-Iweala became WTO DG

Okonjo-Iweala was Nigeria’s candidate for the DG position against seven other big profile candidates from Africa, Europe, the Middle-East, North America, and Asia who were also nominated by their governments.

After the initial selection processes, the WTO selected Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea for the third and final stage.

On 28 October, Okonjo-Iweala was selected by the Walker-led WTO General Council as the next DG of the organisation.

However, her selection was opposed by the United States then led by former President Donald Trump.

According to the US, Yoo is a ‘bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policymaker’.

Coast cleared for Okonjo-Iweala when Yoo bowed out of the race for the DG position following her ‘consultations’ with supporting countries and the US government under the administration of newly-elected US President Joe Biden dropped the US objection and announced instead that Washington extends its “strong support for the candidacy of the Nigerian.

Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister and also as Minister of Foreign Affairs. She was the first female to hold both positions.

Abeeb Alawiye

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