GENEVA (AFP) – Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed Monday as the first female and first African head of the beleaguered World Trade Organization, saying a stronger WTO would be vital for the global coronavirus recovery.
The global trade body called a virtual special general council meeting at which member states officially selected the former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank veteran as its new director-general.
The near-paralyzed institution desperately needs a reboot — something Okonjo-Iweala immediately addressed after her coronation.
”A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic,” the 66-year-old economist said in a statement.
”I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.
”Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today.”
Okonjo-Iweala will take up her post on March 1 and her term, which is renewable, will run until August 31, 2025.
”She was not chosen because she is female or because she is from Africa, but because… she stood out as the candidate with the best qualifications, experience and qualities for the daunting task,” a Western diplomat told AFP.
The Geneva-based WTO has been leaderless since Brazilian career diplomat Roberto Azevedo stepped down last August, a year ahead of schedule.
The 164-member organization appoints its leaders through a consensus-finding process.
The eight candidates were meant to have been whittled down to one by November, but former US president Donald Trump’s administration stood alone in blocking the consensus around Okonjo-Iweala.
South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, the last rival standing, pulled out on February 5 as it became clear that new US President Joe Biden was swinging behind Okonjo-Iweala.
”The United States is eager to work with Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to ensure this institution lives up to its full potential as a body that promotes equitable economic growth through trade,” US diplomat David Bisbee told Monday’s meeting.
He underlined that she had promised it would ”not be business as usual” at the WTO under her direction.
Okonjo-Iweala becomes the organization’s seventh director-general since its creation in 1995.
The Nigerian, who boasted US, EU and African backing, celebrated her appointment with her sister, at her home outside Washington.