WTO gets first female and first African boss

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becomes WTO chief

After withstanding a veto of her candidacy by the now-departed Trump administration, Okonjo-Iweala takes the helm of the Geneva-based WTO at a precarious time for the world economy and just as the organisation itself is mired in a state of dysfunction.

There is also a fragile issue of determining whether the USA broke WTO rules when the Trump administration, citing national security concerns, unilaterally boosted tariffs on steel and aluminum in 2018, Politico reports.

"She is persistent and stubborn", said Kingsley Moghalu, former deputy governor of Nigeria's central bank who worked with her when she was the country's first female finance minister. It negotiates and administers rules for worldwide trade and tries to resolve disputes among its 164 members.

"Vaccine nationalism does not pay" she said, because countries that lag in vaccination will be the source of new variants.

Speaking in 2020, Okonjo-Iweala stamped down those criticisms, saying the WTO is "all. about technical skills and negotiation".

In 2012, she campaigned unsuccessfully for the top position at the World Bank, challenging the traditional practice that the organization is always headed by an American.

Serving as special envoy for the African Union to mobilize financial support for the fight against COVID-19, she urged richer countries to support a two-year standstill on debt service for indebted countries and proposed easing economic sanctions on Sudan and Zimbabwe for health reasons.

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


The vacancy was created in May when former Director-General Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil announced he was stepping down a year before his term was set to expire.

She studied development economics at Harvard after experiencing a civil war in Nigeria as a teenager.

Okonjo-Iweala said during an online news conference Monday that she was eager to begin the work of reforming the organization and modernizing the rules to bring them up to 21st century issues.

While history is in the offing, Dr Okonjo Iweala will take the helm of an organisation responsible as an arbiter on global trade at a time of rising uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic and the devastating impacts it has wrought in the global trading system, the movement of goods and the palpable rise in protectionism between countries and regions.

During her campaign, Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged the necessity of rebuilding trust between the USA and China while trying to find areas of common interest.

In particular, the WTO faces "a ticking time bomb" in the form of other countries' challenges to Trump's use of national security as a justification for imposing tariffs, a little-used provision in USA law rejected by key United States trading partners in Europe.

"The WTO needs to be recast with up-to-date rules fit for today's world, focusing on the sustainable and digital transformations of the global economy", he said. Biden's administration therefore has an incentive to take the dispute off the table before a decision, expected this summer.

She said she shared the Biden administration's concerns about the need to reform the WTO's Appellate Body, but said that would not be a quick or easy process.

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