The World Trade Organization has selected Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its new director-general, the agency of global trade regulators announced Monday, following pushback on her nomination in October by the Trump White House.
The 66-year-old former finance minister of Nigeria will be the first female and first African to lead the organization, though she faced hurdles on the path to her history-making appointment.
She will take office on March 1 for a four-year term.
Okonjo-Iwaela was tapped for the position in October of last year, before the presidential election was decided.
At the time, the Trump administration opted to veto the Nigerian economist’s nomination, arguing she lacked experience on trade issues at a time when it was challenging how the body operated regarding trade disputes with China
China fully supported Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination, as did European allies, Canada, as well as Latin American and African countries.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Okonjo-Iweala rejected Trump administration criticism that she lacked trade experience, saying, “Needless to say [World Trade Organization] members wouldn’t have selected a [director-general] who is missing any skills or qualifications.”
Sources familiar with leadership’s thinking in Beijing told the South China Morning Post in October that China’s strong trade and investment ties with Africa played a large role in it’s support of Okonjo-Iweala.
China also believed that an African leader would be far more likely to “champion a developmental trade agenda,” or be supportive of China’s predatory lending practices with third world African nations.
In 2013, during her tenure as finance minister, Okonjo-Iweala oversaw a deal between Nigeria and China for $3 billion in loans from Beijing to build infrastructure in the African country.
The loans had interest rates of less than three percent over a 15-20 year period.
The deal is one of many Beijing has made in recent years as it works to deepen its sphere of influence in Africa.
The US, under the Trump administration, said in October it would support the nomination of Yoo Myung-hee, South Korea’s first female trade minister instead of Okonjo-Iweala.
As months went by, consensus grew in favor Okonjo-Iweala, with the US becoming the only nation standing in her way to confirmation as director-general.
Yoo withdrew her candidacy earlier this month, paving the way for President Biden’s newly-installed team at the Office of the US Trade Representative to announce their support for Okonjo-Iweala.
“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister. She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”
Speaking to reporters Monday after the announcement of her historic appointment, Okonjo-Iweala addressed the challenge of the US-China relationship by saying, “We can be very helpful to both the US and China to help bring them together to solve these problems.”
The new trade chief then said that it would be a challenge to get member states to work together constructively again.
“It will not be easy because we also have the issue of lack of trust among members which has built up over time, not just among the US and China and the US and the EU…but also between developing and developed country members, and we need to work through that,” she noted.
For it’s part, China expressed glee at Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment, with its Ministry of Commerce releasing a statement saying it was “full of confidence” in her.
“China hopes that after she takes office, she will…promote the necessary reforms of the WTO and safeguard and enhance the authority and effectiveness of the multilateral trade system… the collective decision made by the entire membership demonstrates a vote of trust not only in Dr. Ngozi herself, but also in our vision, our expectation and the multilateral trading system that we all believe and preserve.”
With Post wires