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Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala says "ready to go" on day 1 as WTO boss

Emma Farge
·2 min read

* End of six-month leadership gap at WTO

* Okonjo-Iweala plans to prioritise health

* WTO expected to decide on next ministerial meeting

By Emma Farge

GENEVA, March 1 (Reuters) - The World Trade Organization's first female and first African director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala began work on Monday, ending a six-month leadership void at the global trade watchdog.

After a long campaign that was derailed in the late stages by a Trump administration veto, the 66-year-old Nigerian was finally confirmed as boss last month, pledging to "forget business as usual" at the body which is struggling to strike new deals and whose arbitration functions are paralysed.

"It feels great. I am coming into one of the most important institutions in the world and we have a lot of work to do. I feel ready to go,” Okonjo-Iweala told a reporter on arrival at the WTO's lakeside Geneva headquarters.

The first day of the former finance and foreign minister at the helm of the WTO coincides with a meeting of its top decision-making body, the General Council. Its 164 member states will discuss topics such as trade rules on COVID-19 vaccine distribution which Okonjo-Iweala has identified as a priority.

On the agenda is also the date and venue for its major ministerial conference which was due to be held in Kazakhstan last year but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Okonjo-Iweala has said she hopes that event will provide a venue for clinching various deals including on cutting fisheries subsidies and reform of the WTO's top appeals body which was paralysed by former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.

Her predecessor Brazilian Roberto Azevedo stepped down on Aug. 31, a year early.

Since the director-general role holds few executive powers, some analysts question Okonjo-Iweala's ability to revive the body in the face of so many challenges including persistent U.S.-China trade tensions and growing protectionism heightened by the pandemic. (Reporting by Emma Farge; editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Toby Chopra)