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NEWSMAKER-Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala makes history as head of WTO

Emma Farge and Andrea Shalal
·5 min read

* Okonjo-Iweala chosen as WTO's 7th chief

* Former Nigeria minister has strong reform record

* Geneva-based body leaderless for six months

* Trump paralysed some of WTO's functions(Adds quote from Okonjo-Iweala)

By Emma Farge and Andrea Shalal

GENEVA/WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) - Three months after theTrump administration rejected her, former Nigerian financeminister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala received unanimous backing onMonday to become the first woman and first Africandirector-general of the World Trade Organization.

A self-declared "doer" with a track record of taking onseemingly intractable problems, Okonjo-Iweala will have her workcut out for her at the trade body, even with Donald Trump, whohad threatened to pull the United States out of theorganisation, no longer in the White House.

As director-general, a position that wields limited formalpower, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, will need to broker internationaltrade talks in the face of persistent U.S.-China conflict;respond to pressure to reform trade rules; and counterprotectionism heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What it (the WTO) needs is someone who has the capabilityto drive reform, who knows trade and who does not want to seebusiness as usual. And that is me," she said on Monday.

Earlier she told Reuters in an interview that her toppriority would be to ensure the trade body does more to addressthe COVID-19 pandemic, calling the disparities in vaccine ratesbetween rich and poor countries "unconscionable" and urgingmembers to lift export restrictions on medical items.

She also expressed confidence that her priorities werealigned with Washington's.

"I think our interests and priorities are aligned. They wantto bring the WTO back to (its) purpose," she toldReuters.

The U.S. delegate said that Washington was committed toworking closely with her and would be a "constructive partner".China's delegate pledged "full support" for her.

EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said he lookedforward to working closely with her to drive "much-needed reformof the institution".

A 25-year veteran of the World Bank, where she oversaw an$81 billion portfolio, Okonjo-Iweala ran against seven othercandidates by espousing a belief in trade's ability to liftpeople out of poverty.

She studied development economics at Harvard afterexperiencing civil war in Nigeria as a teenager. She returned tothe country in 2003 to serve as finance minister and backerspoint to her hard-nose negotiating skills that helped seal adeal to cancel billions of dollars of Nigerian debt with theParis Club of creditor nations in 2005.

"She brings stature, she brings experience, a network and atemperament of trying to get things done, which is quite awelcome lot in my view," former WTO chief Pascal Lamy toldReuters last week. "I think she's a good choice."Key to her success will be her ability to operate in thecentre of a "U.S.-EU-China triangle", he said.

The endorsement of the Biden administration cleared the lastobstacle to her appointment and she is due to begin March 1.

SWEET BUT STRONG

Okonjo-Iweala, who goes by 'Dr. Ngozi', becomes one of thefew female heads of a major multilateral body. When she joinsthe WTO's Geneva lakeside headquarters her portrait is set to behung beside others of men, mostly white and from rich countries.

The Trump administration's main criticism of her was thatshe lacked direct trade experience compared to her main SouthKorean rival and even supporters say she will have to quicklyget up to speed on the technicalities of trade negotiations.

She has rejected this, saying that she has plenty ofexperience of trade, plus other expertise.

Asked about how she took the Trump rejection, she replied:"When things happen you take them in your stride and move on".

Raised by academics, the mother-of-four earned a reputationfor hard work and modesty amid the pomp of Nigeria's governingclass, acquaintances say.

"She is persistent and stubborn," said Kingsley Moghalu,former deputy governor of Nigeria's central bank who worked withher when she was the country's first female finance minister.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari welcomed her election,saying it brought "more joy and honour to the country'.

Her appointment also was welcomed by people in the streetsof Nigeria's capital Abuja where Ibe Joy, who works inmarketing, said Okonjo-Iweala's achievements were an inspirationto young women. "If she can do it, we all can do it," said Joy.

REFORMING THE UNREFORMABLE

The 26-year-old WTO that Okonjo-Iweala inherits after asix-month leadership gap is partially paralysed, thanks to theTrump administration which blocked appointments to its topappeals body that acts as the global arbiter of trade disputes.

But even before Trump, negotiators had struggled to clinchdeals that must be agreed by consensus, with the United Statesand other developed WTO members arguing that developingcountries, notably China, cannot cling on to exceptions and thatrules need to change to reflect China's economic growth.

Okonjo-Iweala, who is a special envoy for the World HealthOrganization on COVID-19 and, until recently chair of the boardof global vaccine alliance Gavi, said on Monday she wanted tobuild a framework on pandemic response "so that next time wedon't waste time trying to figure out how to respond".

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus calledOkonjo-Iweala the "WTO's perfect chief".

The WTO currently faces deadlock over an issue of waivingintellectual property rights for COVID-19 drugs, with manywealthy countries opposed.

High on the to-do list will also be fisheries subsidies, thesubject of the WTO's main multilateral talks that missed adeadline to conclude by end-2020. She told journalists on Mondayshe thought a deal on this was "within reach".

Asked about the challenges ahead, she joked that a book shewrote about fixing Nigeria's broken institutions could wellapply to today's WTO: 'Reforming the Unreformable'.

"I feel I can solve the problems. I'm a known reformer, notsomeone who talks about it," she told Reuters in an earlierinterview. "I've actually done it".(Reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva, Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagosand Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Abraham Achirga in Abuja, JanStrupczewski in Brussels and Tom Daly; Editing by CarmelCrimmins, Andrea Ricci, William Maclean)