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Okonjo-Iweala emerges first woman WTO director-general

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister and World Bank managing director, has been appointed the new director-general of the World Trade Organization.

With the appointment, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, has made history as the first woman as well as first African citizen to lead the Switzerland-based institution in that capacity.

The announcement comes following Okonjo-Iweala’s backing by the newly-inaugurated Joe Biden administration in the United States, three months after the Donald Trump administration rejected her.

A self-declared “doer” with a track record of taking on seemingly intractable problems, Okonjo-Iweala will have her work cut out for her at the trade body, even with Donald Trump, who had threatened to pull the United States out of the organisation, no longer in the White House.

Read Also: For Okonjo-Iweala history beckons as WTO names first woman DG

As director-general, a position that wields limited formal power, Okonjo-Iweala, will need to broker international trade talks in the face of persistent U.S.-China conflict; respond to pressure to reform trade rules; and counter protectionism heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 25-year veteran of the World Bank, where she oversaw an $81 billion portfolio, Okonjo-Iweala ran against seven other candidates by espousing a belief in trade’s ability to lift people out of poverty.

She studied development economics at Harvard after experiencing a civil war in Nigeria as a teenager. She returned to the country in 2003 to serve as finance minister and backers point to her hard-nosed negotiating skills that helped seal a deal to cancel billions of dollars of Nigerian debt with the Paris Club of creditor nations in 2005.

“She brings stature, she brings experience, a network and a temperament of trying to get things done, which is quite a welcome lot in my view,” former WTO chief Pascal Lamy told Reuters. “I think she’s a good choice.”

Key to her success will be her ability to operate in the centre of a “U.S.-EU-China triangle”, he said.

The endorsement of the Biden administration cleared the last obstacle to her appointment.

Okonjo-Iweala becomes one of the few female heads of a major multilateral body.

She is expected to join the WTO’s Geneva lakeside headquarters within weeks where her portrait is set to be hung beside others of men, mostly white and from rich countries.

Her bright Nigerian prints are sure to stand out among the suits there where the majority of top staff are also men, like most of the delegates and ministers that walk its corridors.

The Trump administration’s main criticism of her was that she lacked direct trade experience compared to her main South Korean rival and even supporters say she will have to quickly get up to speed on the technicalities of trade negotiations.

She has rejected this, saying that she has plenty of experience of trade plus other expertise.

“The qualities I have are even better,” she said.

Raised by academics, the mother-of-four earned a reputation for hard work and modesty amid the pomp of Nigeria’s governing class, acquaintances say.

“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.

Even when her elderly mother was kidnapped in the Niger Delta, she refused to back down on a series of oil reforms, one of several incidents that earned her the nickname ‘Okonjo-Wahala’, Wahala meaning “trouble” in Nigerian Pidgin.

“People recognise that this is not someone who is going to tolerate nonsense,” her son Uzodinma Iweala, a writer, told Reuters.

“She’s a very strong woman like many African women. There’s that song ‘Sweet Mother’ and that’s true for her but you also know that you don’t cross a Sweet Mother.”

The 26-year-old WTO that Okonjo-Iweala inherits after a six-month leadership gap is partially paralysed, thanks to the Trump administration which blocked appointments to its top appeals body that acts as the global arbiter of trade disputes.

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