Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala making history as first woman and first African to lead World Trade Organization

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Updated: February 28, 2021

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a 66-year-old Nigerian-born mother of four, Harvard-educated development economist, United States citizen, two-time minister of finance in Nigeria with 25 years at the World Bank, is about to make history as the first woman and African to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Before the end of the Trump Administration, the selection process had narrowed to two candidates, Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The Trump Administration’s backing of Yoo Myung-hee complicated the process since the selection requires all World Trade Organization (WTO) members to agree unanimously. Since taking office, the Biden Administration has changed the United States position, supporting Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new World Trade Organization Director, leading to the withdrawal of South Korean, Myung-hee.

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Okonjo-Iweala graciously Tweeted, “Grateful for the expression of support from the U.S. today for DG @WTO. Congratulations to Madam Yoo of Rep. of Korea for a hard-fought campaign. Thank you, President Muhammadu Buhari @MBuhari & all Nigerians, for your unflinching support. Thank you, friends. Love to my family. Glory to God.”

The WTO, based in Geneva, Switzerland, promotes global free trade but has not had a permanent head since Brazil’s Roberto Azevêdo stepped down in August 2020, a year earlier than planned. The organization has since faced multiple issues, including unifying members on multilateral negotiations for trade reform, tariff wars, clear and comprehensive regional agreements, and leading members, particularly from developing countries, to give the WTO a negative rating.

Okonjo-Iweala will inherit global conflict challenges, tasked with settling disagreement between its members, and unifying global trade goals. “The WTO needs a leader at this time. It needs a fresh look, a fresh face, an outsider, someone with the capability to implement reforms and to work with members to make sure the WTO comes out of the partial paralysis that it’s in,” Okonjo-Iweala said in a February 5th interview with CNN.

Given her reputation as a “troublemaker” for a no-nonsense approach and zero-tolerance attitude toward corruption, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will be setting the bar high, unafraid of facing the WTO issues head-on. This opportunity could lead her to not only making history because of her gender and race but also as the greatest leader the World Trade Organization has had; the path is now hers to take.

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Kristi Pelzel
Kristi Pelzel
Kristi Pelzel is a Senior International Correspondent at Today News Africa, working across U.S. and African markets, based in Washington, D.C. Her expertise spans broadcast, digital, and social media communication, nested with policy research, analysis, and writing. A member of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Kristi holds a B.A. from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco, California, and an M.A. from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

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