Finally Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was on February 15 appointed the director general of the World Trade Organisation. Her appointment came after many months of horse-trading over who occupies the 26-year old multilateral body.
The race began September last year after former WTO DG Robert Azevedo stepped down a year early from the director general position on Aug. 31.
In the selection process, representatives from 164 members voiced their preference among the eight candidates to the selection committee, made up of David Walker, WTO General Council Chairman, Dacio Castillo, Chair of the Dispute Settlement Body, and Harald Aspelund, Chair of the Trade Policy Review Body.
For Okonjo-Iweala, it was a herculean race as she had to contend with other candidates, whose countries were powerfully pushing their candidature. Of particular note were Korean Trade Minister, Yoo Myung-hee and Kenya’s current Kenya’s Sports Minister Amina Mohamed. Mohamed was a former foreign affairs minister and had also chaired the WTO’s General Council.
Myung-hee came with a rich credential. In February 2019, she was appointed Korea’s trade minister, thus becoming the first woman to achieve the rank since the ministry was established in 1948.
Myung-hee is said to have nearly 25-year public service career, spanning experience in trade and major bilateral negotiations, including free trade talks with the US, China, Singapore, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as Seoul’s chief negotiator.
However the major obstacle to Okonjo-Iweala appeared to be the United States of America, the led by Donald Trump. The US, which had earlier indicated support for Okonjo-Iweala, after she was interviewed for the top job, later, demurred.
Instead the US under Trump preferred Myung-hee, who they considered more experienced in international trade.
Okonjo-Iweala herself expressed surprise about the US objections to her candidacy after that country had given its support. But an indication that Okonjo-Iweala would clinch the coveted post emerged after her final challenger, South Korean Trade Minister and candidate, Yoo Myung-hee, announced her withdrawal from the race.
The defeat of Trump in the US presidential election and the emergence of Joe Biden had earlier brightened Okonjo-Iweala’s chances as the final barrier appeared to have been broken. Only last week the Biden administration announced its endorsement of Okonjo-Iweala for the top job.
Okonjo-Iweala herself could not understand Trump’s opposition to her candidacy, especially as US officials had twice interviewed her for the job
In press briefing she gave shortly after she was announced as the director-general, Okonjo-Iweala said that she felt she had a good understanding with the US government after the interview.
She had said, “I think I was quite surprised when that came (opposition from Trump) because there was no indication that there was any problem with the US.
“I had two good interviews with the authorities and with the administration, so it was a surprise. But that’s the way life works. When things happen, you take them in your stride and you move on.
“It was wonderful when the Biden administration broke that logjam. They joined the consensus and gave such a strong endorsement to my candidacy. They joined the other 163 members to endorse my candidacy,” she was quoted to have said.
Okonjo-Iweala herself is taking the job with very rich credentials. As a former Nigerian finance minister and a former World Bank executive, the new WTO DG, is entering the job capped with experience.
Born on 13 June 1954 in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, to Chukwuka Okonjo, who was the Obi from the Obahai Royal Family of Ogwashi-Ukwu, she’s married to Dr. Ikemba Iweala from Umuahia, the Abia State capital and has four children.
Okonjo-Iweala has over 30 years experience as economist and international development expert and sits on the Boards of Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), and the African Risk Capacity (ARC).
Her resume covers a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, where she rose to the number two position as Managing Director, Operations between 2007 and 2011.
Okonjo-Iweala was the first woman to become Finance Minister of Nigeria, and first woman to serve in that office twice, (2003–2006, 2011–2015) under President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Goodluck Jonathan, respectively. Euromoney, in 2005, named her global Finance Minister of the year.
For her secondary education, Okonjo-Iweala attended Queen’s School, Enugu, St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan and the International School Ibadan.
In 1973 as a teenager, she migrated to the US to study at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude with an AB in Economics in 1976; earning her doctorate in regional Economics and Development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a thesis titled Credit policy, rural financial markets, and Nigeria’s agricultural development in 1981.
American Association of University Women (AAUW) gave her an international fellowship in support of her doctoral studies. Last Monday, she capped her distinguished career with her appointed as the Director-General the World Trade Organisation with her term commencing on 1 March 2021. This made her the first woman and the first African to occupy the position.
Both Nigerian and world leaders have hailed her appointment. Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, in a congratulatory message, Okonjo-Iweala’s election has brought joy and more honour to the country.
Buhari says, “As the Harvard-educated and renowned economist takes up another onerous task of service to the world and humanity, the President believes her track record of integrity, diligence and passion for development will continue to yield positive results and rewards to mankind.
Buhari expressed optimism that Okonjo-Iweala, who over the years set major records of economic reforms in Nigeria as Minister of Finance, and later Minister of Foreign Affairs, will excel in her new position and validate the global mandate of repositioning and strengthening the multilateral institution for the greater good of all.
President of Senate, Ahmad Lawan, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, in their separate messages, said that her appointment was a testament of experience that spans several decades.
Those who have congratulated her also include governors of Abia, Okezie Ikpeasu; Delta, Ifeanyi Okowa; Imo, Hope Uzodimma and captains of industries.
On March 1, Ngozi-Iweala, will sit at the office of the Geneva, Switzerland-based organization, which was founded on 1 January 1995.