Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, veteran economist, competing for the WTO

Two women are finalists to take the helm of the World Trade Organization (WTO): South Korean Yoo Myung-hee and Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, in Geneva on July 15, 2020.

Seasoned economist and one of Nigeria’s most powerful women: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is, at 66, one of two candidates still in the running to be the next Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), with the South Korean Yoo Myung-hee, as announced Thursday, October 8, the spokesperson of the organization, Keith Rockwell.

Twice Minister of Finance and Head of Diplomacy of Nigeria for two months, Okonjo-Iweala began her career at the World Bank in 1982, where she worked for twenty-five years. In 2012, she failed to become president of this financial institution against Korean-American Jim Yong Kim.

“I think she did a good job, whether in Nigeria or the other countries where she worked”, Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Center for Democracy and Development, told AFP. “She’s not just loved in Nigeria, she’s adored, she’s a symbol (…) for women”, adds Mme Hassan.

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Mme Okonjo-Iweala was born in 1954 in Ogwashi Ukwu, in the coastal federal state of Delta, in southern Nigeria. His father is a traditional chief. However, the candidate has spent most of her life in the United States, where she studied at two prestigious universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard.

While the WTO statute does not provide for a geographical rotation for the Director-General, voices are being raised that it is an African’s turn to take the post. Since its inception in 1995, the WTO has been led by six men: three Europeans, a New Zealander, a Thai and a Brazilian.

” A shame “

The candidacy of this woman with an impressive career was not unanimous, however. “Minister, she may have adopted some transparency reforms, but nearly a billion dollars disappeared each month from the state coffers when she was in charge of the finances”, explains Sarah Chayes, author of Thieves of State (“State thieves”), an investigative book on large-scale corruption. “There is a thirst for positive stories, and at a time when issues of diversity arise in public debate, being a black woman works in her favor.”, concedes the American author, but, according to her, it is “A shame that she could even be chosen for this role”.

Mme Okonjo-Iweala, however, has never been prosecuted for looting state coffers, although critics believe she could have done more to prevent the embezzlement. “She could have resigned and exposed the corruption”, says Olanrewaju Suraju, from Human and environmental Development Agenda, a Nigerian NGO.

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And to those who criticize her for lacking experience in international trade, she replies: “I have worked all my life on trade policies”, at a webinar in July organized by Chatham House, a UK research center. ” Over all “, the head of the WTO must have “Daring, courage”, she says, believing that the choice cannot be made only on technical skills.

Mme Okonjo-Iweala was appointed in July as the African Union’s special envoy to fight the pandemic on the continent. Its mission: to mobilize international support to stem the global economic crisis which is hitting African countries hard.

As WTO presidency, she will have a lot to do in a global context of economic crisis and crisis of confidence in the organization, at a time when the liberalization of globalized trade is hotly contested. According to her, the rise of protectionism and nationalism around the world has intensified with the crisis and barriers should be lowered to revive the economy. “One way to ensure a sufficient supply of vaccines and its equitable distribution is to remove certain barriers erected by laws on intellectual property and technology transfer”, she defended in April in the pages of the American magazine Foreign Affairs.

The World with AFP

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