Okonjo-Iweala wins WTO leadership race

Nigerian economist and former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been confirmed as the next WTO director-general. What will her victory mean for the continent and its role in global trade?

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been elected as the first African and female director-general of the World Trade Organization, the multilateral body that regulates global trade. 

The confirmation of Okonjo-Iweala’s victory, which followed the early February concession by remaining rival Yoo Myung-hee, trade minister of South Korea, has been welcomed as a major boost for African trade and diplomacy, further amplifying the continent’s voice following the launch of the ambitious African Continental Free Trade Area in January.

The former World Bank managing director received unanimous backing from member states after her accession was blocked by the administration of then-President Donald Trump in October.

“It is done! Thank you WTO members for finalizing my election today and making history. In the 73 years of GATT and WTO, honored to be First Woman and First African to lead. But now the real work begins. Ready to tackle the challenges of WTO. Forget Business as usual!” Okonjo-Iweala tweeted on Monday.

When Trump was defeated by President Joe Biden in November’s election, analysts predicted that US opposition to Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy would melt away as part of a US bid to improve ties with African states and reassert its commitment to a multilateral trading system.  

Okonjo-Iweala, who is also a US citizen, had already secured the backing of the European Union and African member states, prompting WTO general council chair David Walker to recommend her for the director-generalship in October based on the “broad support from members from all levels of development and all geographic regions” throughout the process.  

Okonjo-Iweala ran on a platform of using her political skills and reputation as an honest broker – honed during two stints as finance minister of Nigeria and a stint as managing director at the World Bank – to forge high-level political agreements between global decision makers.  

She has expressed confidence in her ability to mediate disputes between the sparring US and China, and claims to be the only candidate working at the intersection of trade and public health, which she says will enable the trade system to better deliver vaccines and medical supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

In October, Sven Simon and Bernd Lange, co-chairs of the European Parliament’s Steering Group on the Parliamentary Conference on the WTO, argued that Okonjo-Iweala “revealed a deep understanding of the fault lines dividing the WTO membership.”   

“The priorities she set out for her first steps after being appointed to the position reveal a clear-eyed agenda, tackling head on key topics such as special and differential treatment, industrial subsidies and dispute settlement reform, while recognising the need for positive momentum through the conclusion of agreements on issues such as fisheries, e-commerce and health.”