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Exclusive: Old and new testaments of Okonjo-Iweala as first African, woman WTO DG



DG of WTO, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (official photo released by WTO on February 15, 2021)

On June 13, 1954, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was born into the world. Okonjo-Iweala was born in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, Nigeria, where her father Professor Chukwuka Okonjo was the Obi (King) from the Obahai Royal Family of Ogwashi-Ukwu.

Okonjo-Iweala attended Queen’s School, Enugu, St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan, and the International School Ibadan, Oyo state.

At the age of 21, she relocated to United States to study at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude with an AB in Economics in 1976.

She earned her PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a thesis titled Credit policy, rural financial markets, and Nigeria’s agricultural development.

Okonjo-Iweala spent a 25-year career at the World Bank in Washington DC as a development economist, rising to the No. 2 position of Managing Director.

Okonjo-Iweala served twice as Nigeria’s Finance Minister and also as Minister of Foreign Affairs. She was the first female to hold both positions.

During her first term as Minister of Finance under President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the wiping out of US$30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of US$18 billion.

Following her first term as Minister of Finance, she served two months as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2006. She returned to the World Bank as a Managing Director in December 2007.

In 2011, Okonjo-Iweala was re-appointed as Minister of Finance in Nigeria with the expanded portfolio of the Coordinating Minister for the Economy by President Goodluck Jonathan.


Her legacy includes strengthening the country’s public financial systems and stimulating the housing sector with the establishment of the Mortgage Refinance Corporation (NMRC).

And in 2012, she contested for the office of the president of the World Bank, but lost the race to Jim Yong Kim who was backed by the US and South Korea.

By 2020, her last contender for the WTO DG, Yoo Mhung-Hee, was also backed by the US and South Korea, but this time, she won.

President Muhammadu Buhari, via the country’s permanent representative in Geneva, nominated the three-time minister for the office of the DG WTO.

The organisation, on its website said: “Nigeria, on 9 June 2020, nominated Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the post of WTO Director-General to succeed the current Director-General, Mr Roberto Azevêdo, who has announced he will step down on 31 August 2020.”

The DG selection procedure published by the WTO stated that the nomination for the next leader of the organisation was to start on June 8 and run through to July 8.

And after the entire nomination month, there were eight candidates from 164 member countries — three of them were Africans.

By September 2020, the 66-year-old woman was named among the five candidates who will proceed to the next stage in the race for the position of the DG.

The other candidates that made it this far included Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea, Amina C. Mohamed of Kenya, Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Liam Fox of the United Kingdom.

Although,  former president Donald Trump’s administration blocked her selection as the new director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), she was supported by the current US president, Joe Biden.


Okonjo-Iweala, in her recount said she was surprised to learn that the US administration led by Donald Trump blocked her selection as WTO DG.

By January 22, 2020 after Joe Biden was sworn-in as president of the US in 2021, the US leaders, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, sent him an open letter to ask his support for NOI.

According to them, “Her selection, as the first American and woman of color to serve as the WTO’s director-general will send a clear message of inclusion to the rest of the world.”

On February 5, 2021, Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean candidate for the same office, who was NOI’s last contender, stepped down.

She said: “To speed up the consensus-building among the member countries on selecting a new director-general, I have decided to renounce my candidacy through close cooperation with the United States, our strong ally.”

And of course, on the same day Mhung-Hee stepped down,  the office of the US Trade Representative said the Biden-Harris admin is pleased to support the candidacy of Okonjo-Iweala.

The same office that had said NOI was not fit to lead the WTO said in the new statement that Okonjo-Iweala is “widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization”.

On February 15, 2021, the WTO in a mailed statement said: “WTO members have just agreed to appoint Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director-General of the WTO.  The decision was taken by consensus at a special meeting today of the organization’s General Council.” authoritatively reported that Okonjo-Iweala would take up her duties on March 1, 2021 and her term, renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.

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