The Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a politician with extensive experience in positions of national and international responsibility, has made history this Monday by becoming the first woman and the first African leader to head the World Trade Organization (OMC).
Born on June 13, 1954 in Ogwashi Uku, a town inhabited mainly by the Igbo ethnic group in the delta of the Niger River (southern Nigeria), Okonjo-Iweala He also has American nationality since 2019.
The United States is in fact the country where he received his higher education, since he studied in prestigious centers of the Harvard University (where in 1976 he graduated cum laude in Economics) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which in 1981 awarded him a doctorate in Regional Economics and Development.
He began his professional career in 1982 at the World Bank (WB), where he has worked for more than 25 years in two stages and held various positions of responsibility, among them that of managing director (“number two” of the entity) between 2007 and 2011.
During his tenure at the World Bank, he promoted numerous initiatives to help the poorest countries cope with financial and food crises.
In Nigerian national politics it was economic adviser to the president Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007) and Minister of Finance of the most populous country in Africa between 2003-2006 and 2011-2015. She was also Minister of Foreign Affairs for three months in 2006, being the first woman in front of the two portfolios.
While he held the Finance portfolio, he was key to the economic growth of the country, through a policy based on transparency and fight against corruption.
At the same time, he managed to alleviate the external debt by obtaining an unprecedented cancellation of the Paris Club and carried out an ambitious reform program to contain public spending.
Since 2015 it has been advisor to companies like Twitter and the financial entity Standard Chartered, but also organizations such as the GAVI Vaccine Alliance, currently essential for the distribution of vaccines against Covid-19 in developing countries.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he has been recognized as one of the most influential people in the world by publications like Time, Forbes Y Newsweek.
The author of several books, she has received honorary degrees from American universities such as Yale and Pennsylvania, as well as Irish Trinity College in Dublin.
The WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) had in almost 75 years of history had six top European officials, one Asian, one American and one from Oceania, but never until now a director or general director from from Africa.
After more than half a century of European control of the body, in 1999 an unwritten rule of continental rotation began in the WTO that suggested that on this occasion an African leader could be elected, although there were two other candidacies from that continent: that of the Kenyan Amina Mohamed and Egyptian Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh.
Challenges of the WTO
“I appreciate the trust placed in me, taking into account not only my identity as a woman and an African, but also my experience and my passion,” said the Nigerian after confirming her appointment, at the meeting of the General Council of the body, held virtually due to the pandemic.
By teleconference, Okonjo-Iweala promised “start the extensive reforms that the WTO needs to adapt to the future “, with challenges such as resume stalled trade negotiations for more than a decade, the recovery of exchanges after the pandemic or the resumption of the arbitration role of the organization.
“The challenges facing the WTO they are numerous but they are not impossible to overcome: there is hope, especially if we work together in a transparent way to build trust and dilute political tension, “said the African.
“I look forward to working with everyone to build the WTO that we all want, an organization that is dynamic, robust and supports sustainable development through trade,” he concluded.