Ngozi-Iweala Gets the Top WTO Job

The world of women, and indeed, the humanity has been in celebratory mood swing in the last few hours. Nigeria’s power lady and one of the world’s most read international development figures becomes the first woman, first African to lead the global trade organization.

My first encounter with Dr. Ngozi was through her book: Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous which was one of my favorite reads last year. Since then, I have continued to follow her fascinating journey.

The World Trade Organization known widely by its acronyms as WTO forms part of the so-called Bretton Woods institutions – Washington based international development bodies which have been notorious for sidelining names from the global south. The WTO, located in Geneva, Switzerland, is an international organization responsible for managing and enforcing the rules of international trade. Stemming from an agreement during the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations (1986-1994), the WTO was officially established on January 1, 1995. Since then, no African has ever sat at the top of its decision-making organ, the General Council.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala changes that history now. Indeed, the WTO in its website formally recognizes this momentous happening when it writes that history is made. the Harvard-educated economist describes herself as a fighter according to the Guardian. She previously worked at the World Bank for 25 years before climbing the ladder as its Managing Director. In 2012, she made a failed attempt to lead that Bretton Wood institution. Her failure to lead such a prestigious international development institution was, according to the African Report, due to “racial discriminations that continues to erode the legitimacy and credibility of the Breton Woods institution.”  The Pan-African-based Magazine continued to allege that in spite of “Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s impressive academic training combined with hand-on experience of pursuing successful policies of reducing poverty and corruption in her country,” the Obama administration did not back her candidacy but instead supported Dr. Kim Yong Kim, a Korean-American who went on to become the World Bank President.

History was about to repeat itself when another Korean candidate, Yoo Myung-hee, almost won the seat late last year when the Trump administration refused to back Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Yoo Myung, who is the current South Korean trade minister would drop from the race on February 5th following a clear change of plan by the Biden-led administration. A statement from President Joe Biden’s Office of the Trade Representative in support of Dr. Ngozi read: “She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”

Yoo Myumg Hee, the current Trade Minister of South Korea who almost won the WTO seat but had to drop on February 5th, clearing way for Ngozi’s win.

The US holds the biggest shots at WTO and is the organization’s biggest paymaster with a veto vote. Historical evidence shows that of all the successful WTO candidates, none has made it without a YES from the United States. The body is more political than economical and has pursued controversial moves than any other international institution of its stature since 1995. Although the organization’s website says the WTO is run by its member governments, and that all decisions are by consensus, practice tells a difference picture. 

The successful nomination and appointment of Dr. Ngozi is a clear indication of what an ambitious, highly-educated and well-trained woman can achieve in life. She has walked the political forest of the WTO and landed in its murky waters. We hope she uses her rich knowledge, experience and wit to turn around this organization for the betterment of the world. As she commits in her victory remarks, she looks for “early wins and successes” in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic as a trust capital for the world trade body. 

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