Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has something to do with as the new director of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). For months, US President Trump stopped her appointment because she had too little experience, but from today she can show whether she can bring back the power of action at the WTO.
As the first woman and first African at the top, she will certainly bring a different perspective to the headquarters in Geneva. And as a minister in Nigeria, she already showed that she likes to act. Perhaps the fresh wind she brings with it can revive the ossified trade institute.
The 66-year-old development economist grew up with poverty, disease and civil war in Nigeria. She‘s as used to sleeping under a down bed as she was on a mud floor, she once said in an interview.
After studying at the prestigious Harvard University, she devoted herself to reducing poverty through trade, as a top woman at the World Bank and twofold Finance Minister in Nigeria.
It gave her a reputation of perseverance. Thus, she managed to cancel billions of international debts in exchange for a direct repayment of the rest.
“ She has also tackled corruption in Nigeria very hard. Not an easy task, but she did well,” says Africa correspondent Elles van Gelder. “‘Okonjo-Wahala‘ she was called, which means something like a troublemaker. But that she became known as a “troubled woman” she saw as a geuzen name.”
In December 2012, it became apparent how great the sacrifices she was willing to make for her mission: when her 83-year-old mother was abducted, Okonjo-Iweala refused to resign. The perpetrators let the woman go after five days when Okonjo-Iweala persevered.
They can use such a breaker at the WTO, which has not presented a major trade agreement for years. Economic superpowers such as the US, China and the EU are at odds with each other, while poorer countries demand greater participation. Negotiations on all kinds of difficult dossiers were put to an end, from e-commerce to overfishing and from agricultural subsidies to rules on covidvaccins.
“ Lambed” Van Gelder calls the WTO. “There is a huge amount of criticism that it is not possible to reach agreement on treaties. People wonder whether the WTO still has the right to exist. It really has to be different.”
Donald Trump gave the WTO’s viscous reason to stop the appointment of Okonjo-Iweala. She had no direct experience with the byzantine rules of international trade agreements, which, according to the previous American President, was indispensable.
“ However, he was not happy that China was behind her,” adds Van Gelder. “In addition, he himself contributed to the fact that disputes were not resolved by stopping appointments to the Dispute Board when spots were released.
Okonjo-Iweala calls it a chance that she‘s a relative outsider. “We need someone with a fresh pair of eyes.”
She finds herself perfectly suited for her new job. “I’m a problem solver. A reformer. Not someone who just talks about it, but someone who actually did it.”