The World Trade Organization has chosen Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its first female and first African leader, handing her the task of restoring trust in a rules-based global trading system.
After four years of bruising battles between Washington and Beijing over protectionist tariffs and import quotas that badly damaged global trade, Okonjo-Iweala is expected to set about bridging a growing divide between the administrations running the world’s first and second largest economies.
Last year in an interview with the Guardian, she said the coronavirus pandemic had highlighted dysfunctional trade rules that should be reformed to ensure medical breakthroughs save lives everywhere and not just in the countries where they are developed.
Promising to restore the agency’s relevance after its failure to deliver on the promise of trade liberalisation for the benefit of poorer nations, she said development and climate change issues would also be at the top her agenda.
On Monday the WTO’s 164 members unanimously selected the 66-year-old development economist to serve a four-year term as director general.
Eight candidates had put themselves forward to replace the outgoing chief, Roberto Azevêdo, including the UK’s former trade minister Liam Fox. Okonjo-Iweala remained in the race despite Donald Trump telling the WTO he would veto her appointment.
She has previously said the Americans were understandably aggrieved by the lack of a level playing field in international trade and as director general she would seek to take onboard their concerns. Her dual US citizenship means she is also the first American to hold the organisation’s top job.
As Nigeria’s finance minster she gained a reputation as a tough negotiator during talks to reduce the country’s debts. That reputation was consolidated when securing more money for grants and soft loans to poor countries while No 2 at the World Bank.
“It can’t be business as usual,” she said last year. “It can’t be more of the same. It can’t be someone who just knows the issues and how the place works. We have tried that. Of all the challengers for the job, I have the right combination of skills.”
China’s delegation to the WTO said: “The WTO is at its critical moment and must be able to deliver soon. The collective decision made by the entire membership demonstrates a vote of trust not only in Dr Ngozi herself but also in our vision, our expectation and the multilateral trading system that we all believe [in] and preserve.”