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From Buhari’s nomination to Biden’s endorsement — how Okonjo-Iweala became first female WTO DG

Okonjo-Iweala, the daughter of a Nigerian royal and academic, became the first African and first woman to lead the universe’s flagship trade institution — the World Trade Organisation (WTO).


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Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

Okonjo-Iweala, who is used to shattering glass ceilings, becoming the first female finance minister in Nigeria, and the only human dead or alive to have held the position twice, outdid seven other contenders to emerge as the “Queen of Trade”.

Nicknamed Okonjo-Wahala, the trouble woman, for her tenacious execution of reforms in Nigeria, the development economist has gone on to clinch numerous international roles after her time in the country’s ministry of finance.

She has been appointed to the board of Twitter; saddled with the responsibility of leading the world’s leading vaccine organisation, Gavi; called to serve on the board of Standard Chartered Bank; and taken up numerous responsibilities at the AU, UN, IMF.

In 2012, she had put up a challenge to become 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.

Her journey to become the first female DG of the WTO. Here is a timeline of how the vision became a reality.

on June 4, 2020, that President Muhammadu Buhari had withdrawn the candidacy of Yonov Frederick Agah, Nigeria’s permanent representative to WTO, for the office of the DG. Buhari nominated Okonjo-Iweala in his stead.

June 5: Egypt opposes Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination

Egypt opposed Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination, stating that member states of the African Union (AU) had been required to nominate candidates for the director-general position by November 30, 2019 — over five months ago. But Nigeria only nominated her a few weeks before the race started at the WTO.

June 9: Nigeria nominates Okonjo-Iweala at WTO

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

“Nigeria, on 9 June 2020, nominated Dr 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 organisation said on its website.

June 15: Legal counsel says Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination violates AU rules

The African Union legal counsel said only three countries presented their candidates before the deadline: Eloi Laourou (Benin), Abdulhameed Mamdouh (Egypt) and Yunov Agah (Nigeria).

While Nigeria presented a candidate before the deadline, the candidate was not Okonjo-Iweala, and her nomination was against the laid-down rules.

June 20: WTO tells  Okonjo-Iweala can run

The world trade body told TheCable that despite opposition from Egypt, the former managing director of the World Bank was still eligible to run.

The WTO on June 20 that according to its agreed procedures for the appointment of WTO directors-general, a candidate only needs the backing of their country to vie for the much-coveted office.

July 8: Nomination closes

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

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

July 15: Okonjo-Iweala pitches WTO members

For hours on July 15, Okonjo-Iweala was at the WTO headquarters in Geneva pitching her dream of a new WTO to member countries and the press.

“I think there are issues of trust among members that are leading to these disagreements and these divisions. These questions came up from the members during my interview and I said we need to rebuild trust,” she told member countries.

TheCable highlighted five things we learnt from her address at the WTO.

July 15: Egyptian Candidate says he’s been endorse by AU


Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, the Egyptian candidate for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) top job, said he is the only African candidate who has been endorsed by the African Union (AU).

“I think what is the position of the Egyptian government is that the Egyptian candidate — and now this is a matter of fact not a matter of interpretation — is the only candidate of the three Africans who has been endorsed by the executive council of the African Union,” he told the WTO.

July 21: AU denies endorsing Egyptian candidate

The African Union denied endorsing any candidate for the office of the director-general of the World Trade Organization. The body said its meetings to endorse a single candidate yielded no result.

“As of present, therefore, there is no African Union-endorsed candidate for this post,” the AU said on a week after Mahmoud made the claim.

September 18: Okonjo-Iweala makes shortlist of five

The 66-year-old 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 were 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.

October 26: EU endorses Okonjo-Iweala

Just before the end of the race, the European Union turned its back on the UK’s candidate for the office of the DG Liam Fox, and endorsed the Nigerian nominee.

The former World Bank MD had met key leaders in Europe to swing the union’s vote in her direction.

October 28: Trump’s admin opposes NOI

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer flanked by Donald Trump.

The Donald Trump led admin opposed the election of NOI, as the Nigerian nominee is fondly called. The US trade representative said the WTO is in dire need of reform and must be “led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field”.

“The United States supports the selection of Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee as the next WTO Director-General,” the USTR said.

January 22, 2021: US leaders ask Biden to back NOI

“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,” they argued.

February 5, 2021: Korean opponent steps down.

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

“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,” she said.

February 5, 2021: Biden backs Okonjo-Iweala

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”.

February 15, 2021: Okonjo-Iweala appointed DG

“WTO members have just agreed to appoint Dr. 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,” The WTO said in a mailed statement.

Okonjo-Iweala will take up her duties on March 1, 2021 and her term, renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.





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