Ngozi-Okonjo Iweala, Nigerian Lady

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) first female and first African director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala began work on Monday, ending a six-month leadership void by vowing to unblock negotiations on rules to stop over-fishing.

After a long campaign that was derailed in the late stages by a Trump administration veto, the Okonjo-Iweala was finally confirmed as boss last month, pledging to “forget business as usual” at the body which is struggling to strike new deals and whose arbitration functions are paralysed.

“This is a very significant moment for the WTO. On behalf of the General Council, I extend our warmest congratulations to Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on her appointment as the WTO’s next Director-General and formally welcome her to this General Council meeting,” said General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand who, together with co-facilitators Amb. Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Amb. Harald Aspelund (Iceland) led the nine-month DG selection process.

“Dr Ngozi, on behalf of all members I wish to sincerely thank you for your graciousness in these exceptional months, and for your patience. We look forward to collaborating closely with you, Dr Ngozi, and I am certain that all members will work with you constructively during your tenure as Director-General to shape the future of this organization,” he added.

“I am honoured to have been selected by WTO members as WTO Director-General,” said Dr Okonjo-Iweala. “A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.”

The first day of the former finance and foreign minister at the helm of the WTO coincides with a meeting of its top decision-making body, the General Council. Its 164 member states will discuss topics such as trade rules on COVID-19 vaccine distribution which Okonjo-Iweala has identified as a priority.

“It feels great. I am coming into one of the most important institutions in the world and we have a lot of work to do. I feel ready to go,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told a reporter on arrival at the WTO’s lakeside Geneva headquarters.

On the agenda is also the date and venue for its major ministerial conference which was due to be held in Kazakhstan last year but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Okonjo-Iweala has said she hopes that event will provide a venue for clinching various deals including on cutting fisheries subsidies and reform of the WTO’s top appeals body which was paralysed by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Ngozi-Okonjo Iweala, Nigeria Lady Portrait
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

“The WTO is too important to allow it to be slowed down, paralysed and moribund,” Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said a day after her nomination last month.

Her predecessor Brazilian Roberto Azevedo stepped down on Aug. 31, a year early.

Since the director-general role holds few executive powers, some analysts question Okonjo-Iweala’s ability to revive the body in the face of so many challenges including persistent U.S.-China trade tensions and growing protectionism heightened by the pandemic.

“I am hoping to be able to listen in and see what delegations have to say, what ambassadors have to say, about the key issues
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

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