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Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala assumes duty as WTO Director General

Nigeria’s former finance and foreign affairs minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was appointment in mid-February as the new Director General of the World Trade Organization, WTO.

The organization’s 164 members unanimously elected the 66-year-old to lead the global trade outfit. Today, March 1, she officially assumes her role as leader of the WTO. She made history by becoming the first woman and first African to rise to the position.

In interviews since her ascent she had outlined her dream of breathing a new lease of life in the WTO and also working to ensure a steady and robust recovery on global trade arising from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite holding American citizenship, her biggest challenge turned out to be an American “block” to her re-election under the Trump White House. But when guards changed in Washington, the Biden government backed her nomination clearing the way for her rise to the post.

Having served under the erstwhile Peoples Democratic Party, PDP government; Okonjo-Iweala got the backing of the current Muhammadu Buhari-led government to pursue the double historic position.

“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 with 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.

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

Okonjo-Iweala said she was hopeful of clinching a deal on cutting fisheries subsidies this year after 20 years of talks.

“Things are not easy when members are negotiating and there are still a lot of critical issues that need to be sorted out. But we are hopeful,” she said, speaking next to an ice statue of fish erected by environmental groups outside the WTO.

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.

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