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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Photo: Eric Baradat/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Photo: Eric Baradat/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s ascent to head the World Trade Organization is confirmed

Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and African to lead the WTO.

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former two-time Nigerian finance minister, has made history by becoming the first woman and first African to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO). 

Earlier this month, candidate Yoo Myung-Hee, the South Korean trade minister, announced that she would be pulling herself out of the race, clearing the path for Okonjo-Iweala to take on the role.

The WTO officially confirmed Okonjo-Iweala on Monday, Feb. 15, and her term will last from March 1, 2021 to August 31, 2025. 

In a statement, the new leader said she is honored to have been selected and plans to make public health and economic issues her main priorities. 

“A strong WTO is vital if we are going to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. 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,” said Okonjo-Iweala. 

The Office of the United States Trade Representative released a statement on Friday, Feb. 5 in support of Okonjo-Iweala for the position. 

“[She] brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister. She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership,” the statement read. 

Okonjo-Iweala is inheriting this position at a particularly fragile time in the organization’s history. Critics have stated that the WTO has fallen short on several fronts, including the failure to advance new trade negotiations and govern the unfair economic behavior from China. 

The organization’s system for settling disputes has also been damaged by the Trump administration. 

Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged these issues in her acceptance speech in the WTO’s headquarters on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, but remained hopeful that her leadership could help rebuild their trading system. 

“The challenges facing the WTO are numerous and tricky, but they are not insurmountable,” she said. 

The pandemic has unleashed calls around the world for less reliance on global supply chains and for more goods to be produced at home. 

President Joe Biden has placed domestic recovery at the core of his “Build Back Better” agenda. 

Okonjo-Iweala, who holds dual U.S. citizenship, will need to swiftly demonstrate her ability to unite countries despite four years of mistrust brought upon by Trump’s “America First” trade policies. 

Despite the pressure she’ll be facing, Okonjo-Iweala feels confident that with sustained and intentional collaboration, the challenges can be successfully overcome.

“As we put it in my Igbo language, 'Aka nni Kwo aka ekpe, aka ekepe akwo akanni wancha adi ocha,’ (If the right washes the left hand, and the left hand washes the right hand, then both become clean.) This is a call for collective action,” she told the WTO General Counsel last fall. 

To celebrate her accomplishment as the first women and first African to lead the WTO, Nigerian women on social media have posted themselves sporting Okonjo-Iweala’s signature style. 

They dressed themselves in a full outfit and head tie in African wax cloth known as Ankara, a single strand necklace, and clear glasses, and posted their photos with the hashtag #BeLikeNgoziChallenge.

The challenge has been shared more than 30,000 times with women saying how inspired they are to see an African woman hold such a powerful position. 

Journalist Tolulope Adeleru-Balogun, who’s daughter partook in the challenge, wrote on twitter, “Thank you for giving my daughter and so many African girls someone to look up to.” 

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