GENEVA: Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed on Monday (Feb 15) as the first female and first African head of the beleaguered World Trade Organization (WTO), saying a stronger WTO would be vital for the global coronavirus recovery.
The WTO called a virtual special general council meeting at which member states officially selected the former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank veteran as the global trade body's new director-general.
She will take up her post on Mar 1 and her term, which is renewable, will run until Aug 31, 2025.
The near-paralysed institution desperately needs a kick-start - something Okonjo-Iweala immediately addressed after being confirmed in the job.
"A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic," the 66-year-old economist said in a statement.
"I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.
"Our organisation 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."
South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee had been the only other remaining contender for the post but pulled out when it became clear that new US President Joe Biden was swinging firmly behind Okonjo-Iweala's candidacy.
The organisation has been leaderless since Brazilian career diplomat Roberto Azevedo stepped down last August, a year ahead of schedule.
The process of picking one of eight candidates to succeed him had been expected to wrap up by November, but the administration of former US president Donald Trump blocked the consensus to appoint Okonjo-Iweala.
As director-general, a position that wields limited formal power, Okonjo-Iweala will need to broker international trade talks in the face of persistent US-China conflict; respond to pressure to reform trade rules; and counter protectionism heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In her acceptance speech at the WTO, she said that getting a trade deal at the next major ministerial meeting would be a "top priority" and also urged members to reject vaccine nationalism, according to a delegate attending the closed-door meeting.
Okonjo-Iweala, who boasted US, EU and African backing, was not at the WTO's Geneva headquarters for Monday's meeting, but was scheduled to hold an online press conference after its conclusion.
She will take over an organisation mired in multiple crises and struggling to help member states navigate the severe global economic slump triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Okonjo-Iweala argued during the race that she was best placed out of the eight candidates for the post to steer the WTO through the crises, calling herself a reform candidate.
She warned that growing protectionism and nationalism had been spurred on by the pandemic and insisted barriers needed to be lowered to help the world recover.
Even before COVID-19 battered the global economy, the WTO was weighed down by stalled trade talks and struggled to curb trade tensions between the United States and China.
The WTO also faced relentless attacks from Washington under Biden's predecessor Donald Trump. Among other things, Trump brought the WTO's dispute settlement appeal system to a grinding halt in late 2019.
Twice Nigeria's finance minister and its first woman foreign minister, Okonjo-Iweala has been described as a trailblazer.
Aside from her time in public office, Okonjo-Iweala has also spent a quarter-century at the World Bank - rising to be managing director and running for the top role in 2012.
"I think she has delivered, whether in Nigeria or in other countries where she worked," Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development research and advocacy group told AFP.
Born in 1954 in Ogwashi Ukwu, in Delta State, western Nigeria, her father is a traditional ruler. She spent much of her life in the United States, graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, where she sent her four children.
"She is not just liked in Nigeria, she is loved, because she is a symbol, and people are gunning for her because of what she represents for womanhood," said Hassan.
"SHE KEPT QUIET"
The former minister has portrayed herself as a champion against Nigeria's rampant corruption - and says her own mother was even kidnapped over her attempts to tackle the scourge.
But critics insist she should have done more to stop it while in power.
"At the very least, she had the opportunity to resign from office and expose the corruption," said Olanrewaju Suraju, from the Human and Environmental Development Agenda campaign group.
"Rather, she kept quiet and allowed high level corruption to fester under the regime, only to complain after leaving office."
Okonjo-Iweala has also brushed off claims she lacks experience as a trade minister or negotiator.
"I've been doing that all my life, working on trade policy issues," she said during a webinar organised by Chatham House in July.
"Most of all," she said, the choice for director general should go beyond technical skills, "you need boldness, courage".
She was recently named the African Union's special envoy to mobilise international support for the continent's efforts to address the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Okonjo-Iweala has warned that growing protectionism and nationalism have been spurred on by the crisis and insists barriers need to be lowered to help the world recover.
"One way to ensure the adequate supply and equitable distribution of vaccines is to remove some of the barriers created by intellectual property and technology transfer laws," she wrote in April in Foreign Affairs magazine.