GENEVA: Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed on Monday (Feb 15) as the first female and first African head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), at a special general meeting.
“WTO members have just agreed to appoint Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next director-general,” the global trade body said in a statement, adding that the former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank veteran will take up her post on Mar 1.
US President Joe Biden strongly swung behind her candidacy shortly after the only other remaining contender, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, pulled out.
“I look forward to finalising the process,” Okonjo-Iweala said on Feb 6 after securing the Biden administration’s support.
Twice Nigeria’s finance minister and its first woman foreign minister, Okonjo-Iweala has been described as a trailblazer.
Aside from her time in public office, the 66-year-old also spent a quarter-century at the World Bank – rising to be managing director and running for the top role in 2012.
“I think she has delivered, whether in Nigeria or in other countries where she worked,” Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development research and advocacy group told AFP.
Born in 1954 in Ogwashi Ukwu, in Delta State, western Nigeria, her father is a traditional ruler. She spent much of her life in the United States, graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, where she sent her four children.
“She is not just liked in Nigeria, she is loved, because she is a symbol, and people are gunning for her because of what she represents for womanhood,” said Hassan.
“SHE KEPT QUIET”
The former minister has portrayed herself as a champion against Nigeria’s rampant corruption – and says her own mother was even kidnapped over her attempts to tackle the scourge.
But critics insist she should have done more to stop it while in power.
“At the very least, she had the opportunity to resign from office and expose the corruption,” said Olanrewaju Suraju, from the Human and Environmental Development Agenda campaign group.
“Rather, she kept quiet and allowed high level corruption to fester under the regime, only to complain after leaving office.”
Okonjo-Iweala has also brushed off claims she lacks experience as a trade minister or negotiator.
“I’ve been doing that all my life, working on trade policy issues,” she said during a webinar organised by Chatham House in July.
“Most of all,” she said, the choice for director general should go beyond technical skills, “you need boldness, courage”.
She was recently named the African Union’s special envoy to mobilise international support for the continent’s efforts to address the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Okonjo-Iweala has warned that growing protectionism and nationalism have been spurred on by the crisis and insists barriers need to be lowered to help the world recover.
“One way to ensure the adequate supply and equitable distribution of vaccines is to remove some of the barriers created by intellectual property and technology transfer laws,” she wrote in April in Foreign Affairs magazine.