NEWSMAKER – Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala makes history at the helm of the WTO


NEWSMAKER - Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala makes history at the helm of the WTO

* Okonjo-Iweala chosen as 7th head of the WTO

* Former Nigerian minister has a strong record of reform

* Organization based in Geneva without a leader for six months

* Trump has paralyzed some of the functions of the WTO (refoundations show it was chosen, adds WTO delegate)

By Emma Farge, Alexis Akwagyiram and Philip Blenkinsop

GENEVA, Feb.15 (Reuters) – Three months after her rejection by the Trump administration, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on Monday received unanimous support to become the first woman and the first African chief executive of the World organization of commerce. A self-proclaimed ‘underwriter’ with a background in solving seemingly intractable problems, Okonjo-Iweala will have her work cut out for her in the trade body, even with Donald Trump, who threatened to pull the United States out of it. ‘organization. , more at the White House.

As managing director, a position that wields limited formal power, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, will have to negotiate international trade negotiations amid the continuing conflict between the United States and China; respond to pressure to reform trade rules; and against the protectionism accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her acceptance speech at the WTO, she said securing a trade deal at the next major ministerial meeting would be a “top priority” and also urged members to reject vaccine nationalism, according to one. delegate participating in the closed meeting.

In the same speech, she described the challenges the body faces as “many and delicate but not insurmountable”.

A 25-year-old veteran of the World Bank, where she oversaw an $ 81 billion portfolio, Okonjo-Iweala clashed with seven other candidates in adopting a belief in the power of trade to lift people out of poverty.

She studied development economics at Harvard after experiencing Nigeria’s civil war as a teenager. She returned to the country in 2003 to serve as finance minister and donors point to her relentless negotiating skills that helped strike a deal to write off billions of dollars in Nigerian debt with the Paris Club of countries creditors in 2005.

“She brings stature, she brings experience, network and a temperament to try to get things done, which in my opinion is most welcome,” said the former head of the WTO. Pascal Lamy at Reuters. “I think she’s a good choice.”

Key to its success will be its ability to operate at the center of a “US-EU-China triangle,” he said.

The Biden administration’s approval removed the final hurdle to his appointment.


Okonjo-Iweala becomes one of the few women at the head of a large multilateral organization. She is expected to join the WTO’s lakeside headquarters in Geneva in a few weeks, where her portrait will be hung next to other men, mostly white and from rich countries.

Her bright Nigerian prints will certainly stand out among the costumes there where the majority of senior officials are also men, like most of the delegates and ministers who walk her halls.

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

She rejected this, claiming that she had a lot of experience in trading and other skills.

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

Raised by academics, the mother of four has earned a reputation for hard work and modesty amid the pomp of the Nigerian ruling class, according to acquaintances.

“She’s persistent and stubborn,” said Kingsley Moghalu, a former vice-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 many incidents that earned her the nickname Okonjo-Wahala, Wahala meaning “trouble” in Nigerian pidgin.

“People recognize that he is not someone who is going to put up with nonsense,” her son Uzodinma Iweala, a writer, told Reuters.

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


The 26-year-old WTO, which Okonjo-Iweala inherits after a six-month lack of leadership is partially crippled, thanks to the Trump administration blocking appointments to its main appeals body which acts as a global arbitrator of trade disputes.

But even before Trump, negotiators struggled to strike deals that must be reached by consensus, with the United States and other developed WTO members arguing that developing countries, especially China, cannot not cling to exceptions and that the rules must change to reflect China’s economy. growth.

Okonjo-Iweala, World Health Organization special envoy on COVID-19 and, until recently chairman of the board of directors of the global vaccine alliance Gavi, told Reuters that trade’s contribution to public health would be a priority.

The WTO is currently facing a deadlock over a waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs, which many wealthy countries are opposing. The list of things to do will also include fisheries subsidies, the subject of the main multilateral negotiations of the WTO which missed a deadline to be concluded by the end of 2020.

Asked about the challenges, she joked that a book she wrote on mending Nigeria’s broken institutions might well apply to today’s WTO: ‘Reforming the Irreformable’ .

“I feel like I can solve the problems. I’m a famous reformer, not someone who talks about it, ”she said. “I did it”.


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