Expert economist and former Finance Minister of Nigeria Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will take over as director-general of the World Trade Organization, becoming the first woman and first African to hold the position, according to The Associated Press.
Okonjo-Iweala has become well known as an expert in international development after decades of working at the World Bank as a development economist and from her two terms as the first woman to lead Nigeria’s Finance Ministry.
“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is eager to focus on the many needed reforms at the WTO. She is humbled by the support she has received from WTO members and of champions in Nigeria and other parts of the world,” Okonjo-Iweala said through her spokeswoman, according to The New York Times.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged the issues facing the world and said she was ready to take them head-on.
“You have developed country members who believe they have borne the burden of liberalization — too much of it — and that maybe, advanced developing countries have maybe not borne enough. I’ll be listening to the developed countries, listening to the advanced-developing countries and the least-developed countries and asking, ‘Where is there common ground?’” she said.
Despite her decorated career, her appointment to the director-general spot at the World Trade Organization was shrouded in controversy because it was opposed heavily by just one country: the United States.
Former President Donald Trump sought to undermine Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy by promoting another candidate from South Korea and vociferously opposed efforts by other countries to have Okonjo-Iweala take the post in October.
The World Trade Organization explained the situation in a release in October, writing that all 164 member countries have to agree on a director-general before it can be approved. Trump singlehandedly held up the appointment by forcing the United States to back Okonjo-Iweala’s opponent in the race, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee.
After an exhaustive process, Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo were the two finalists but every country besides the United States had settled on Okonjo-Iweala.
“She clearly carried the largest support by members in the final round and she clearly enjoyed broad support from members from all levels of development and all geographic regions and has done so throughout the process. I am therefore submitting the name of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommending her appointment by the General Council as the next Director-General of the WTO until 31 August 2024,” General Council Chair David Walker said in a statement.
The organization was replacing former Director-General Roberto Azevêdo, but Yoo refused to concede as long as the United States continued to back her.
But things changed once President Joe Biden took office. Biden’s administration announced “strong support” for Okonjo-Iweala in a statement on Friday, according to The New York Times, and Yoo officially ended her bid for the director-general seat on Friday.
Yoo said she spoke with officials from the United States before dropping out of the race.
“It is particularly important to underscore that two highly qualified women made it to the final round of consideration for the position of WTO director-general — the first time that any woman has made it to this stage in the history of the institution,” Biden’s Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said in a statement, noting that Okonjo-Iweala “is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”
The New York Times reported that Trump’s actions toward the organization were intentionally damaging as he and his protectionist officials sought to cripple the WTO. Trump refused to appoint people to certain panels in the WTO and his trade war with China directly flouted multiple rules passed by the organization.
For four years, Trump used the WTO as cannon fodder in his speeches, repeatedly referencing it as being “unfair” to the United States and openly pledging to remove the country from it, an unprecedented action that he never actually went through with.
Despite their open disrespect of her, documents obtained by the South China Morning Post show that Okonjo-Iweala went to extraordinary lengths to speak with Trump’s officials and address any concerns they had about her.
Supporters of Okonjo-Iweala spoke with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and other officials to stress that even though she had support from The European Union, Japan and China, she was a dual Nigerian-U.S. citizen and would treat the country fairly. Okonjo-Iweala even contacted Melania Trump, but none of it changed Trump’s mind about her.
Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement that she was eager to move past the controversy and get to work helping the world’s economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic, which did unprecedented damage to most economies around the world.
Grateful for the expression of support from the US today for DG @WTO. Congratulations to Madam Yoo of Rep. Korea for a hard fought campaign.Thank You President Muhammadu Buhari @MBuhari &all Nigerians for your unflinching support.Thank you friends. Love to my family.Glory to God.
— Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (@NOIweala) February 5, 2021
“I look forward to finalizing the process of @WTO DG. My gratitude to HE @CyrilRamaphosa , all African Heads of State, the AUC Chair. Special thanks to ECOWAS Heads of State for outstanding support. I thank @PressACP , @Miaamormottley , EU, all Officials & Leaders of WTO Members,” Okonjo-Iweala added on Twitter.
The 66-year-old became well-known in Nigeria due to her efforts to root out corruption, eventually getting the nickname “Okonjo the trouble maker,” according to Bloomberg News. She helped the country get out of billions in debt and pledged to help the WTO face several issues ranging from China’s controversial state-run economy to arguments over damaging fishing subsidies.
“She is this wonderful, soft, very gentle woman with an authentic approach to problems but, boy, under that soft glove there is a hard hand and a strong will behind it. She is going to rock the place,” European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde told Bloomberg News.