Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was on Monday, February 15 confirmed as the World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general.
Her appointment came after the last remaining rival candidate, South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee, withdrew from the race, allowing her to become the first woman and the first African to lead the global trade body.
She will take up her post on March 1, initially for a term that runs until August 2025.
The Geneva-based body has been without a permanent director-general since Roberto Azevêdo stepped down a year earlier than planned in August.
However, as she takes over, much is expected from her.
Despite WTO being established in 1995 with the aim of promoting open trade for the benefit of all, the organization has struggled to prevent trade spats among member states, most notably the United States and China.
The organization negotiates and administers rules for international trade and tries to resolve disputes among its 164 members.
Need for reforms
As Okonjo-Iweala takes over, she has acknowledged the need for reform.
Speaking during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, she said that deep reforms are needed to rebrand and reposition the organization.
Okonjo-Iweala said ramping up global efforts to combat Covid-19 was also a priority.
She noted that one of the top priorities she has, and which she is passionate about, is how can trade and the WTO play a stronger role in bringing solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic, both on the health side and economic side.
Okonjo-Iweala said that while the economic recovery was reliant on trade, solving public health challenges also required good trade.
In response to concerns that rich countries are not doing enough to share vaccines, Okonjo-Iweala said that the WTO needs “rules that will allow access and equity for vaccines, and therapeutics and diagnostics.”
“That’s a big issue for me, how do we get the solutions to the present pandemic?” she said during the interview.
Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, had expressed worries that developing countries are unable to access adequate vaccine supplies for their citizens.
“Rich and powerful nations have rushed to lock up supply of multiple vaccine candidates,” Kagame said in a Guardian newspaper op-ed published on February 7.
Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment hailed
Her appointment as WTO chief has been hailed as a significant achievement by people in her native Nigeria.
Okonjo-Iweala spent 25 years at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the position of managing director.
She also chaired the board of Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization — a position that provided her with a unique perspective on how global trade can help facilitate the roll-out of vaccines and other critical tools needed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Okonjo-Iweala previously served as Nigeria’s finance minister and has experience working at international governance bodies.
The United States threw her weight behind Okonjo-Iweala candidature, an endorsement that paved the way for unanimous agreement on the post.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration had backed South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee, preventing a consensus.
However, Yoo announced her withdrawal from the race.
The US Trade Representative then proceeded to issue a statement saying the administration respects her decision to pull out.
The United State’s backing removed the final obstacle to Okonjo-Iweala’s bid to be the first woman and the first African to run the Geneva-based trade body.
Following United States’ backing of the 66-year-old Nigerian economist, WTO general council Chairman David Walker announced a meeting in Geneva, where the organization’s members formally approved Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment to a four-year term as director-general.
The appointment of the new WTO chief will help the beleaguered organization to confront an array of internal crises and begin deliberating a more structured conversation of how to make 25-year-old WTO fit to govern the 21st-century trading system.
United States’ diplomatic relations with Nigeria dates back in the year 1960 just after Nigeria got its independence from the United Kingdom.
Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa with an estimated population of more than 190 million, which is expected to grow to 400 million by 2050 and become the third most populous country in the world after China and India.
Although Nigeria’s economy has become more diversified, crude oil sales have continued to be the main source of export earnings and government revenues.
Despite persistent structural weaknesses such as a deficient transportation infrastructure, the Nigerian economy grew briskly for the decade ending in 2013.
The growth rate slowed in 2014, owing in large part to the fall in oil prices, and in 2016 and 2017 Nigeria experienced its first recession in over two decades before rebounding in 2018.
The gains from economic growth have been uneven; more than 60% of the population lives in poverty.
The United States is the largest foreign investor in Nigeria, with U.S. foreign direct investment concentrated largely in the petroleum/mining and wholesale trade sectors.