Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becomes first woman, first African to serve as director general of WTO

GLOBAL – The World Trade Organization (WTO) has officially selected Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian economist and former finance minister, to be its next leader, becoming the first woman and first African to serve as director general.

The 66-year-old Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was appointed director-general of the World Trade Organization by representatives of the 164 member countries. She will assume the post on March 1 for a renewable term expiring on Aug. 31, 2025.

The W.T.O.’s General Council, which includes representatives from all of the group’s 164 member countries, agreed in a meeting on Monday that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala should be the next director general. As with many of its other decisions, the organization was required to reach a consensus on the appointment, meaning no member country could object to the choice.

“Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the W.T.O. stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today.”

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala – Director General, WTO

The organization’s former director general, Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil, left his post in August after announcing in May that he would be departing one year early. The members of the W.T.O. then considered eight candidates for the position.

By October, most countries had announced their support for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala. But Trump administration officials continued to express support for South Korea’s trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee, saying they believed she had more trade experience, an impasse that left the organization without a leader for several months.

After the Biden administration came into office, Ms. Yoo dropped her candidacy and the United States announced its support for Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement that she was honored to have been selected and would work with the organization’s member countries to address health issues brought about by the pandemic and “get the global economy going again.”

“A strong W.T.O. is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic,” Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said.

“Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the W.T.O. stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today.”

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala takes the helm of the W.T.O. at a particularly difficult time for the global trade body, which was created in 1995 to help settle trade disputes, write new trade rules and encourage the flow of goods and services worldwide.

“It’s been a long and tough road, full of uncertainty, but now it’s the dawn of a new day and the real work can begin,” she said. “The challenges facing the W.T.O. are numerous and tricky, but they are not insurmountable.”

In a news conference with reporters, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala said her initial priorities would include working with other international organizations to create lasting rules for responding to pandemics and making progress in two negotiations over fishery subsidies and digital trade.

Okonjo-Iweala, formerly Nigeria’s finance minister, had a 25-year career at the World Bank, where she rose to the number-two position of managing director. She holds both US and Nigerian citizenship.

Created in 1995 to help settle trade disputes, The World Trade Organization is an international body that deals with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated among the bulk of the world’s nations and ratified in their legislatures.

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