Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria has made history by becoming the first woman and first African director-general of the World Trade Organization. The appointment comes three months after she was rejected by the Trump administration.
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. Okonjo-Iweala rejected this, saying that she has plenty of experience in the trade, plus other expertise.
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.
Asked about how she took the Trump rejection, she replied: “When things happen you take them in your stride and move on”.
As director-general, a position that wields limited formal power, she 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.
“My top priority would be to ensure the trade body does more to address the Covid-19 pandemic, calling the disparities in vaccine rates between rich and poor countries “unconscionable” and urging members to lift export restrictions on medical items,” she said.
The U.S. delegate said that Washington was committed to working closely with her and would be a “constructive partner”. China’s delegate pledged “full support” for her.EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said he looked forward to working closely with her to drive “much-needed reform of the institution”.
“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 last week. “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.
“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. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari welcomed her election, saying it brought “more joy and honour to the country’.
Her appointment also was welcomed by people in the streets of Nigeria’s capital Abuja where Ibe Joy, who works in marketing, said Okonjo-Iweala’s achievements were an inspiration to young women. “If she can do it, we all can do it,” said Joy. The endorsement of the Biden administration cleared the last obstacle to her appointment and she is due to begin March 1.