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Okonjo-Iweala becomes first African, woman WTO DG

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By Gabriel Chy Alonta

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) members on Monday elected Nigerian economist, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to be the next Director-General of the organization.

She will be the first woman and the first African to lead the WTO.

The decision was taken at a special meeting of the organisation’s General Council on Monday.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala thus becomes the first woman and the first African to head the WTO.

She will assume duties on March 1, while her term will expire on Aug. 31, 2025, but it could be renewed, the organisation noted.

Global female leaders are already sending congratulatory messages to the new WTO chief among them the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde.

“This is an historic moment for the entire world. I’m so glad to see a woman from Africa at the head. Europe is fully behind you.

“We support the reform of the WTO and will help you protect the rules-based multilateral trading system,”Von der Leyen said on Twitter.

Lagarde noted that she has “known Ngozi for many years. Her strong will and determination will drive her to tirelessly promote free trade to the benefit of people worldwide.”

Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, earlier in his congratulatory message, stated that Okonjo-Iweala’s victory had brought joy and more honour to the country.

The president’s congratulatory message is contained in a statement by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, released in Abuja on Monday.

“Her track record of integrity, diligence and passion for development will continue to yield positive results and rewards to mankind,’’ the president said.

Buhari affirmed that Okonjo-Iweala, who over the years set major records of economic reforms in Nigeria as Minister of Finance, and later Minister of Foreign Affairs, would excel in her new position.

He expressed the hope that the former Nigerian minister would validate the global mandate of repositioning and strengthening the multilateral institution for the greater good of all.

Congratulatory messages have also come from a number of Nigerian state governors including Ifeanyi Okowa (Delta), Godwin Obaseki (Edo) and others. Not left out are federal and state legislators as well as eminent individuals and organisations.

Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment follows months of deadlocked discussions between the WTO members on who should be chosen as the next director-general since former chief Roberto Azevedo stepped down in August, a year earlier than his second four-year term was set to end.

The delays in the appointment of WTO chief reportedly stemmed from the reluctance of former U.S. President Donald Trump to approve the Nigerian economist’s candidacy.

The Trump administration favoured South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee.

However, after Joe Biden assumed presidency, the South Korean minister decided to quit the race paving the way for Okonjo-Iweala’s selection.

The economist and expert in international finance and development is regarded as a skilled negotiator and consensus builder, having gathered experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America.

The 66-year-old chairs the GAVI Vaccine Alliance and sits on the board of Twitter.

She was recently appointed African Union Special Envoy for the continent’s access to the COVID-19 tools accelerator.

Okonjo-Iweala spent 25 years as a development economist at the World Bank, during which she quickly rose through the ranks to become managing director of operations.

She spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during both food and financial crises, generating more than 40 billion dollars for the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank’s grant and soft credit arm.

Okonjo-Iweala twice served as Nigerian finance minister (2003-2006 and 2011-2015) and briefly acted as foreign minister in 2006. She was the first Nigerian woman to hold both positions.

She earned an economics degree from Harvard University (1976), graduating magna cum laude, a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received 15 honorary degrees from universities across the world.

Okonjo-Iweala is the author of numerous books and articles on finance and economics.

Transparency International named her one of eight inspirational female anti-corruption fighters in 2019, while Fortune Magazine called her one of the 50 greatest world leaders in 2015.

In 2014, Time Magazine listed her among the top 100 most influential people in the world.

Okonjo-Iweala is married with four children and has three grandchildren. 

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