Africa: WTO Chief – Why the Choice of an African Woman Is a Big Deal

Former colleagues of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speak highly of the economist as she prepares to become the next director-general of the World Trade Organization. Her tenure begins during turbulent times.

The Nigerian economist already had broad support from World Trade Organization (WTO) members, including China, the European Union, the African Union, Japan and Australia. Her challenger, Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister, withdrew her candidacy last Friday.

Former colleagues also believe she is well-suited for the position. “Ngozi is one of the most qualified people for that particular post she vied for. So I wish her well in terms of the final decision,” Dr. Shamsudeen Usman, a former minister of national planning, told DW. Okonjo-Iweala and Usman served alongside each other as ministers under Nigerian President Jonathan Goodluck in 2011.

However, she was not the favorite candidate for the United States under the Trump administration — hence complicating the decision-making process.

The election of a new director-general requires the consensus of all WTO) members.

“I know that she will discharge her duties very well as she has done in a lot of jobs she has held before,” Usman said of his former colleague.

The WTO, a Geneva-based body tasked with promoting free trade, has been without a permanent leader since Roberto Azevedo stepped down a year earlier than planned at the end of August 2020.

Azevedo’s resignation came after the WTO was embroiled in an escalating trade spat between the US and China.

Tide is turning for women

If she is confirmed, Okonjo-Iweala will become the first African and the first woman to hold the top position at the WTO.

She was the first female foreign minister and held the position of finance minister twice in her home country of Nigeria.

“I see her appointment as a validation of African women’s competency and leadership skills, and of African women’s excelling despite the systematic hurdles and obstacles facing them,” Fadumo Dayib, the first female Somali presidential candidate, told DW.

Dayibu added that the choice of Okonjo-Iweala is a sign that “the tide is turning in favor of competent women and it’s about time that happened.”

Nigerian economist Tunji Andrews agrees with Dayibu. He says the international community has finally realized that Africans can sit at the table with global powers.