Nigerian economist Okonjo-Iweala becomes WTO chief

Senior Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed head of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Monday in Geneva.

She is the first African and the first woman to serve as director general of the organization that is facing the deepest crisis since it was founded in 1995.

Envoys from the 164 WTO member states approved Okonjo-Iweala on Monday by consensus, the free trade body announced.

The United States paved the way for the appointment in early February, when President Joe Biden threw his weight behind the candidate who had been blocked under his predecessor Donald Trump.

Okonjo-Iweala previously served as Nigerian finance and foreign minister, and as the managing director of the World Bank.

Most recently, she had chaired the board of GAVI, the public-private vaccine initiative that is leading international efforts to share Covid-19 vaccines fairly between rich and poor countries.

Okonjo-Iweala takes on her new job as global trade is suffering from the pandemic crisis and from tensions between major economies.

Free trade talks have also been stalled for years.

In addition, the WTO is currently unable to settle trade disputes between countries as the United States has been blocking the appointment of appeals judges.

The Trump administration sought reforms of the WTO, without clearly spelling out its demands.

The EU and other countries have also been calling for change.

“Having supported Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy from the start, the EU now looks forward to working closely with her to drive much-needed reform of the institution,” said European Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis.

“The WTO needs to be recast with up-to-date rules fit for today’s world, focusing on the sustainable and digital transformations of the global economy,” he said.

Okonjo-Iweala is scheduled to start her four-year term in March.

She prevailed over several other candidates in the months-long WTO leadership race, including South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung Hee, her main rival.

Okonjo-Iweala succeeds the Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, who left the WTO before the end of his term in August. He has joined US beverage giant Pepsico as an executive.