When Robert Azevedo stepped down last year from the post of director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the trade body’s top leadership position, former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala quickly became the universal favorite to land the job—except for among members of the Trump administration. Because the WTO operates on the basis of consensus, the Trump administration's opposition effectively vetoed her in favor of the current South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. In an interview with the Financial Times, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer outlined the Trump administration’s objection, claiming that Okonjo-Iweala is “somebody from the World Bank who does development” with no “real trade experience.” (Okonjo-Iweala previously held the number-two position at the Bank.) However, Lighthizer’s comments are not altogether credible, given Okonjo-Iweala’s experience with trade issues as finance minister.
Nevertheless, the WTO and its membership could read a calendar as well as anyone else, and so the debate over the next director general remained frozen until after the U.S. presidential elections. After consulting with U.S. officials earlier this month, Myung-hee withdrew her candidacy. The Biden administration then formally expressed its support for Okonjo-Iweala.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is, among other things, board chair of Gavi, a global alliance to ensure low-income countries can access life-saving vaccines. She has already signaled that high on her agenda at the WTO will be to promote and facilitate the enhanced distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and protective equipment.
In traditional and social media, the focus on Okonjo-Iweala has been that she is the first woman and the first African to head the WTO. As such she is a symbol, and symbols are important: many Africans see her as validating the competency and leadership skills of African women.
With the popular focus on Okonjo-Iweala’s gender, race, and country of origin, overlooked could be her competency and expertise, regularly demonstrated during her career at the World Bank and twice as Nigeria's finance minister. Demonstrated competency accounts, at least in part, for her strong support from the beginning within the WTO.
Okonjo-Iweala self-identifies as foremost a Nigerian, and in public always wears Igbo dress. She worked as a cook for rebels on the frontlines in the 1967–70 civil war between Nigeria and Igbo-dominated Biafra. That said, her higher education was at Harvard and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She worked in Washington, D.C. for twenty-five years. Her husband is a physician practicing in Washington, D.C. She became an American citizen in 2019.