Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and first African leader of the World Trade Organisation.—AFP
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and first African leader of the World Trade Organisation.—AFP

GENEVA: Three months after the Trump administration rejected her, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala received unanimous backing on Monday to become the first woman and first African director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

A self-declared “doer” with a track record of taking on seemingly intractable problems, Okonjo-Iweala will have her work cut out for her at the trade body, even with Donald Trump, who had threatened to pull the United States out of the organisation, no longer in the White House.

As director-general, a position that wields limited formal power, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, will need to broker international trade talks in the face of persistent US-China conflict; res­pond to pressure to reform trade rules; and counter protectionism heightened by the pandemic.

She said in an interview that her top priority would be to ensure the trade body does more to address the pandemic, calling the disparities in vaccine rates between rich and poor countries “unconscionable” and urging members to lift export restrictions on medical items.

She also expressed confidence that her priorities were aligned with Washington’s.

“I think our interests and priorities are aligned. They want to bring the WTO back to (its) purpose.”

The US delegate said Washington was committed to working closely with her and would be a “constructive partner”. China’s delegate pledged “full support” for her.

The EU’s trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, said he looked forward to working closely with her to drive “much-needed refo­rm of the institution”.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2021

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