Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala confirmed as WTO chief

Okonjo-Iweala is unanimous choice, becoming trade body’s first female and first African leader

The World Trade Organization has chosen Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its first female and first African leader, handing her the task of restoring trust in a rules-based global trading system.

On Monday, the WTO’s 164 members unanimously selected the 66-year-old development economist to serve a four-year term as director general. Okonjo-Iweala will take over the institution, with its budget of $220m and staff of 650, at a critical time.

After four years of bruising battles between Washington and Beijing over protectionist tariffs and import quotas that badly damaged global trade, Okonjo-Iweala is expected to set about bridging a growing divide between the administrations running the world’s first and second largest economies.

Speaking after her appointment, Okonjo-Iweala said her top priority was to ensure the WTO does more to address the coronavirus pandemic, saying members should accelerate efforts to lift export restrictions slowing trade in needed medicines and supplies, and warned of the danger posed by “vaccine nationalism”.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe,” she told Reuters. “Vaccine nationalism at this time just will not pay, because the variants are coming. If other countries are not immunised, it will just be a blowback. It’s unconscionable that people will be dying elsewhere, waiting in a queue, when we have the technology.”

Last year in an interview with the Guardian, she said the pandemic had highlighted dysfunctional trade rules that should be reformed to ensure medical breakthroughs save lives everywhere and not just in the countries where they are developed.

Describing herself as a fighter, she promised to restore the agency’s relevance after its failure to deliver on the promise of trade liberalisation for the benefit of poorer nations. Development and climate change issues will also be at the top her agenda.

Eight candidates had put themselves forward to replace the outgoing chief, Roberto Azevêdo, including the UK’s former trade minister Liam Fox. Okonjo-Iweala remained in the race despite Donald Trump telling the WTO he would veto her appointment.

Ahead of the vote for a new boss, Trump blocked the WTO from appointing appeal judges to arbitrate in disputes, hampering the organisation’s ability to resolve claims of trade abuses.

Joe Biden is know to want greater co-operation at an international level and to reject his predecessors reliance on bilateral confrontations to win trade battles. However, he is under pressure from Congress to maintain a hostile stance on China and is likely to want the WTO to tackle claims of trade abuses by Beijing.

Okonjo-Iweala has previously said the Americans were understandably aggrieved by the lack of a level playing field in international trade and as director general she would seek to take onboard their concerns. Her dual US citizenship means she is also the first American to hold the organisation’s top job.

As a two-time finance minister in Nigeria she gained a reputation as a tough negotiator during talks to reduce the country’s debts. That reputation was consolidated when securing more money for grants and soft loans to poor countries while No 2 at the World Bank.

“It can’t be business as usual,” she said last year. “It can’t be more of the same. It can’t be someone who just knows the issues and how the place works. We have tried that. Of all the challengers for the job, I have the right combination of skills.”

The in-tray at the WTO includes plans for a a multilateral accord to curb harmful fishing subsidies and re-appointing judges to fill vacant posts on the appeals panel.

There is also an outstanding negotiation to find agreement on rules governing the $26tn global e-commerce marketplace, which many countries resist due to the dominance of US technology companies Google, Facebook and Amazon.

China’s delegation to the WTO said: “The WTO is at its critical moment and must be able to deliver soon. The collective decision made by the entire membership demonstrates a vote of trust not only in Dr Ngozi herself but also in our vision, our expectation and the multilateral trading system that we all believe [in] and preserve.”

Simon Evenet, coordinator of Global Trade Alert, an independent trade policy monitoring group and a professor of international trade at the Swiss university St. Gallen, said in an open letter to Okonjo-Iweala that the WTO had historic chance to become a global champion for saving lives during the pandemic.

“Fighting Covid-19 is mostly a matter for national governments, but the WTO has a key role. The pandemic won’t be over anywhere until it is over everywhere, and trade will be critical to defeating it globally.”

He added the WTO “can and must” negotiate rules, or best practices, to smooth the path for medical supplies to be exported to developing world countries, find ways to keep ports open and offer credit support to businesses prevented from supporting the fight against infection and the spread of the disease.


Phillip Inman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
US blocking selection of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be next head of WTO
Sources say it is unclear if move is attempt to sabotage trade body much criticised by Trump

Larry Elliott Economics editor

28, Oct, 2020 @6:37 PM

Article image
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will find the WTO a challenge – but the only way is up
A politician may have a better chance of sorting out WTO’s problems than a technocrat

Larry Elliott

15, Feb, 2021 @5:47 PM

Article image
WTO chief says post-Brexit trade talks must start from scratch
Roberto Azevêdo says leave vote would present complex and unusual situation with UK unable to ‘cut and paste’ its former EU-negotiated trade deals

Larry Elliott

07, Jun, 2016 @11:37 AM

Article image
Protectionism is not the answer, Angela Merkel warns US
German chancellor uses Davos speech to protest against sanctions on imports from China

Larry Elliott and Graeme Wearden in Davos

24, Jan, 2018 @5:21 PM

Article image
The World Bank and the IMF won't admit their policies are the problem
Those who run the global economy realise it could blow up at any time, but are carrying on regardless

Larry Elliott

09, Oct, 2016 @11:22 AM

Article image
The WTO could be dancing its last tango, strictly speaking
Trump and Xi’s truce at the G20 is a start but international trade still stands at the crossroads

Larry Elliott

02, Dec, 2018 @11:05 AM

Article image
Airbus takes final approach to settle 16-year WTO row with US
Aircraft maker says it will end French and Spanish state support used by Trump administration to justify tariffs

Jasper Jolly and agencies

24, Jul, 2020 @5:49 PM

Article image
Free trade warning – IMF, WTO and World Bank say it must be defended
Fears about Donald Trump’s protectionist rhetoric prompt joint defence of open markets with admission that more help for those ‘left behind’ is needed

Larry Elliott

10, Apr, 2017 @1:00 PM

Article image
WTO rules EU can apply tariffs on US goods as trade war deepens
Latest ruling could inflame trade tensions from long-standing Boeing-Airbus dispute over subsidies

Jasper Jolly

13, Oct, 2020 @4:32 PM

Article image
China files complaint to WTO over Trump's $200bn tariff plan
Move comes less than a week after US president escalated trade dispute with new threats

Lily Kuo

16, Jul, 2018 @12:38 PM