Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala confirmed as next WTO director-general

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been selected as the next director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), after winning unanimous backing from all 164 member states. 

The twice-former Nigerian finance minister and previous chair of Gavi, the vaccine alliance, will become the first woman and first African leader of the global trade body when her four-year term starts on 1 March.

She will face the daunting task of restoring confidence in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the global multilateral trading system, already buckling under pressure before the Covid-19 crisis in the face of rising protectionism and trade wars between the world’s biggest economies.

In her acceptance speech on Monday, Okonjo-Iweala said one of her top priorities would be to work with members “to quickly address the economic and health consequences brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

"A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

“I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again. Our organisation faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today."

Her appointment, which was taken by consensus at a special meeting on Monday of the organisation's General Council, comes after a lengthy selection process followed by months of uncertainty after the previous US administration refused to join the consensus around Dr Okonjo-Iweala and threw its support instead behind South Korea’s trade minister Yoo Myung-hee, who it said had more trade experience.

Joe Biden’s administration has since thrown its weight behind Okonjo-Iweala, declaring its “full support” and recognising the 25-year World Bank veteran’s wealth of knowledge in economics and  “proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”

As well as confronting challenges brought on by the pandemic, other urgent issues on Okonjo-Iweala’s agenda will be bringing about much-needed internal reforms to the WTO including its paralysed disputes settlement body, which has been unable to review the many appeals currently pending after the US in 2019 blocked the appointment of further judges to the Appellate Body.

Other tasks on her to do list include ensuring the organisation's members reach an agreement over ending harmful fishing subsidies and resolving a deadlock between members over whether to temporarily waive intellectual property protections for all Covid -19 vaccines and treatments.  She has also spoken about updating the WTO’s rulebook in important areas such as digital trade and sustainability.

European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen congratulated Okonjo-Iweala on Twitter, calling it “a historic moment for the entire world".

Pascal Lamy, WTO chief between 2005-2013, said Okonjo-Iweala “brings stature, experience, a network and a temperament of trying to get things done, which is quite a welcome lot in my view”.

As she kicks off her four-year term, it’s clear Okonjo-Iweala has the conviction and ambition to convince the world once again of the role the organisation can play as a facilitator of multilateral cooperation and global trade, recently telling  TIME magazine that if the WTO did not exist “you would have to invent it.”