A seasoned economist and former finance minister of Nigeria, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has the dual label of being the first woman and the first African woman to head the WTO.
Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed head of the World Trade Organization on Monday, Feb. 15. She thus becomes the first woman and the first African leader to head the institution.
The international institution has been headed since its creation in 1995 by men: three Europeans, a New Zealander, a Thai and a Brazilian.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Only Candidate in the running
“WTO members have just agreed to appoint Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director-General of the WTO. The decision was taken by consensus at a special meeting of the organization’s General Council today,” the WTO announced about 15 minutes after the opening of the meeting. “She will take office on March 1 and her renewable mandate will expire on August 31, 2025,” the world trade policeman said.
Her appointment at the head of the WTO was facilitated by the change of power in the United States. Indeed, after several months of paralysis under the Trump administration, the Biden administration preferred to remove the main obstacle to the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the head of the WTO, by giving “its strong support” to the candidacy of the Nigerian.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a seasoned economist, is one of the most powerful women in Nigeria. A two-time finance minister and head of the country’s diplomacy for two months, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala began her career at the World Bank in 1982, where she worked for twenty-five years. By 2012, she had failed to become the president of this financial institution, facing Korean-American Jim Yong Kim.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala A controversial candidate
However, the candidacy of this woman with an impressive track record was not unanimous.
“As a minister, she may have passed some transparency reforms, but nearly a billion dollars disappeared each month from the state coffers when she was in charge of finance,” says Sarah Chayes, author of Thieves of State, a book that investigates large-scale corruption. “There’s a thirst for positive stories and, at a time when diversity issues are being debated in public debate, being a black woman works in her favor,” says the American author, but she says it’s “a shame that she could even be selected for this role.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala, however, has never been prosecuted for looting state coffers, although critics say she could have done more to prevent the misappropriation. “She could have resigned and exposed the corruption,” says Olanrewaju Suraju of Human and Environmental Development Agenda, a Nigerian NGO.
In July, Okonjo-Iweala was appointed African Union special envoy to combat the Covid-19 pandemic on the continent. Her mission: to mobilize international support to curb the global economic crisis that is hitting African countries hard.