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Meet Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the new WTO boss

It took 73 years to happen but Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has made history as the first woman and the first African to be chosen as Director-General of the World Trade Organisation after navigating a tough electoral process. This is a major landmark achievement especially in a world clamouring for more female and black representation. Over the years, Okonjo-Iweala has continued to change the narrative, setting an incredible example that a woman does not have to settle neither does she have to choose between family life and her career, she can excel at both. Her bright Nigerian prints and head tie are sure to stand out among the suits there when she takes office on March 1st 2021.

It is also noteworthy that this is not the first time Okonjo is breaking new grounds, she was the first female Finance Minister and the first female Foreign Affairs Minister in Nigeria. Okonjo-Iweala is also the first female and black candidate to contest for the presidency of the World Bank Group in 2012. She has continued to make history throughout her career with laudable achievement in all the offices she has filled.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was born in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State on the 13th of June, 1954. After her secondary education at Ibadan, she proceeded to Harvard University where she graduated with an AB honours in Economics in 1977. The 66-year-old holds a PhD in Regional Economics and Development from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is married to Ikemba Iweala, a neurosurgeon and the couple has four children together

Okonjo-Iweala started out as an intern in World Bank Group

She began charting her career path with an internship at the World Bank Group. After graduation, she returned to World Bank Group and worked for many years as a development economist. At the World Bank, she held the post of Corporate Secretary and Vice President. Following her role as Vice President, she was appointed as Nigeria’s Finance Minister under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration.

Afterwards, she was appointed as a Managing Director of World Bank Group. As the Managing Director, she led several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during food and financial crises.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was reappointed as Finance Minister during President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, with an expanded portfolio of the coordinating Minister of the Economy. During her time as a Minister of Finance, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club of creditors that led to wiping out US$30billion Nigerian’s debt.

In 2015, she joined Lazard, a financial advisory and asset management firm. She serves as a Senior Advisor in the organisation.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed as the independent non-executive director at Standard Chartered PLC in July 2017 and also Twitter’s Board of Directors in July 2018. She also held other notable positions and has chaired a number of boards and advisory boards

“I was eating one meal a day”

From Harvard to the World Bank and WTO, it almost looks like Okonjo-Iweala has had the best life with no hardship at all but that is not true.

Okonjo-Iweala has experienced hardship, having experienced Nigeria’s brutal civil war during her teenage years, during which her family reportedly lost all their savings. “I was eating one meal a day,” she said in an interview with Forbes.

She worked as a cook for rebels on the frontlines in the 1967–70 civil war between Nigeria and Igbo-dominated Biafra.

When serving as Nigeria’s finance minister, kidnappers demanded Okonjo-Iweala resign after taking her mother hostage. She refused to comply and they ended up releasing her mother a few days later.

Her journey to the World Trade Organisation was not the easiest as well. The Trump administration refused to back Okonjo-Iweala in November for the position, saying she lacked trade experience. This was despite her winning support from more than 70 percent of the WTO members. But she refused to drop out of the race until the new president President Joe Biden reversed efforts to block the appointment.

An entrepreneur, an author

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala wears many hats as she is also an entrepreneur and an author. She founded NOI Polls, Nigeria’s first indigenous opinion research organisation in 2006. The company partnered with Gallup USA to develop opinion research in Nigeria. NOI Polls provides timely and relevant information on public opinion on various social and economic issues.

She has published some books; Chinua Achebe: Teacher of Light (2003), Economic Reforms: Progress and Challenges (2007), Transparency and Accountability in the Management of Public Funds (2011), Reforming the Unreformable (2012) and Fighting Corruption is Dangerous (2018).

Her vision is to give WTO a fresh start

Okonjo-Iweala is taking charge of the WTO at a time it is facing a lot of challenges with geopolitical rivalries between China and the United States but Okonjo-Iweala says she is ready to give WTO a fresh start.

“The WTO needs a fresh look, a fresh face, an outsider, someone with the capability to implement reforms and to work with members to make sure the WTO comes out of the partial paralysis that it’s in,” Okonjo-Iweala said in an interview with CNN.

“My vision is also of a rejuvenated and strengthened WTO that will be confident to tackle effectively ongoing issues,” Okonjo-Iweala told WTO members during a hearing.

Any benefit for Nigeria?

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becoming the Director-General of the WTO sure gives some light to the international image of Nigeria which has been battered globally.

However, the WTO is a multilateral organisation and she has assured the world that she would serve all WTO members and deliver results that would benefit not only Nigeria and Africa but other continents.

Therefore, Nigeria has a lot to benefit alongside other countries. She has promised to contribute to the resolution of the Covid-19 pandemic which has plagued many countries. “I believe the WTO can contribute more strongly to a resolution of the Covid-19 pandemic by helping to improve access accessibility and affordability of vaccines to poor countries,” she said.

Okonjo-Iweala has also promised to help develop the capacities of the least developed countries, the poorest countries in the world that have the particular challenge of accessing the WTO.

She stated that with the current agreement reached at the African Continental Free Trade zone (AFCTA), she would ensure that the WTO helped to attract benefits for the African continent.

She is also invested in ensuring that she is not the last woman occupying her current position as the director of WTO.

“I tell people I am very proud to be African; l am proud for Nigeria and the continent and also proud for women. But the bottom line is the capability to do the job and to deliver so that, after me, there will be other women, other Africans.”

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