The ‘go-getter’ at the helm of the WTO

Director general of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, at Aid for Trade Global Review 2022. (Credit: WTO/Bryan Lehmann)

A new star is shining in International Geneva’s constellation. With a mixture of personal courage and a sense of humour, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is reviving multilateralism.

It has been a long time since the head of an international organisation in Geneva received a standing ovation. But it happened on 17 June at 5am. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), had just completed a week of intense negotiations at the 12th Ministerial Conference. After a decade without a significant agreement, ten decisions were taken – six of them multilateral deals, including a waiver of Covid vaccine patents for a period of five years.

Behind this success was the tenacious Nigerian Okonjo-Iweala, 68, who had been in office at the trade organisation for one year and three months. An economist and specialist in international development, her appointment was no easy task. Her predecessor, the Brazilian Roberto Azevêdo, stepped down in the summer of 2020, a year before the end of his mandate, to join PepsiCo and a salary ten times higher. The Nigerian quickly became the favourite to take over the reins of a “paralysed” WTO.

Her CV is impeccable: a graduate of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a former managing director of the World Bank and twice Nigeria’s finance minister. Her greatest achievement was leading the negotiations with the Paris Club in 2005 and writing off $18 billion of Nigerian debt. But in 2020, the Trump administration vetoed the appointment: it was not until Joe Biden took office that Okonjo-Iweala's nomination was confirmed on 15 February 2021.

I am not surprised that she is succeeding at the WTO where others have failed. She possesses an irresistible mix of personal courage and the will to get concrete results. “When I get up in the morning, I don't think about my reputation but I do think about how to solve the next problem,” she told me the first time I met her. It was in 2013 in her office in Abuja from which, like a command post, she led Nigeria's development and anti-corruption front, working daily from 6am to midnight.

Her deputies came and went, exhausted, their arms full of urgent files, unable to keep up with her pace. She punctuated her orders with loud bangs on the table. The deluge of problems in her in-tray was a daily occurrence. She had, for example, introduced biometric records for all Nigerian government employees, which led to the detection of 46,821 fake civil servants who were being paid a monthly salary by the government. This feat earned her death threats and explained the presence of armed guards in the corridor.

The pressure, though constant, seemed to galvanise her. In early 2012, the government removed a subsidy on fuel, which was costing $8bn a year and fattening corrupt middlemen. Protests followed and half the subsidy had to be reinstated. Okonjo-Iweala, who had put her resignation on the line to make the reform happen, paid the price. In December 2012, her 83-year-old mother was kidnapped from her village on the Niger Delta by a gang affiliated with oil traffickers who were demanding the minister's resignation. “We are not people who allow ourselves to be frightened,” she said simply. “If you fight corruption, you have to be prepared to pay a very personal price”. Her mother was eventually released.

Three years later, I invited her to give a lecture at the University of Grenoble. The pressure was off, she had left the Nigerian government and was chairing the board of the Geneva-based Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI). We talked about her childhood: “I grew up in a village in southern Nigeria where I was raised until I was eight and a half by my grandmother. My parents were scholarship students in Germany and didn't have enough money to take me with them. I learned about real life, fetching wood and water. At the age of five I could cook. This life gave me strength and a solid character. The other significant experience of my childhood was the Biafran war (1967-1970). My parents lost everything. I knew what it was like to have nothing.”

The expression “go-getter” seems to have been invented for her. When she was 15, during the war, she saved the life of her little sister, who was suffering from malaria, by carrying her for more than ten kilometres. Then she broke through a crowd of a thousand people gathered outside a clinic to get a chloroquine injection.

In Geneva, Okonjo-Iweala has also undertaken to reform the internal organisation of the WTO and its 600 officials, which is no easy task. In particular, she pushed out those known internally as “the Brazilians” and who had become important thanks to the protection of Azevêdo. “No one is indispensable,” the WTO director is reported to have said when commenting on these departures. No one but her.

This article was published as part of a special 2nd anniversary print edition of Geneva Solutions, published in collaboration with Le Temps.