Members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Monday agreed by consensus to appoint Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the organization’s seventh director-general.
After taking office on March 1, Okonjo-Iweala will become the first woman and the first African to serve as the chief of the 26-year-old global trade body, which has been leaderless for almost six months after Roberto Azevedo stepped down on Aug. 31, 2020.The appointment came as the world’s multilateral trading system is grappling with a myriad of challenges ranging from reform pressures to rising protectionism and a pandemic-induced recession.
“In recent years, the multilateral trading system has been going through difficult and challenging times. But, in my view, the world now needs, more than ever, a reinvigorated WTO,” Okonjo-Iweala underlined in her campaign speech.
The appointment of the new WTO chief by consensus has been widely seen as a positive sign that the multilateral trading system could be restored in a constructive manner and gain further momentum.
Applauding the “timely” appointment, China’s Ambassador to the WTO Li Chenggang said, “the collective decision made by the entire membership demonstrates a vote of trust” not only in Dr. Okonjo-Iweala herself, but also “in our vision, our expectation and the multilateral trading system that we all believe and preserve.”
“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, who over the years set major records of economic reforms in Nigeria as minister of finance, and later minister of foreign affairs, will excel in her new position and validate the global mandate of repositioning and strengthening the multilateral institution for the greater good of all,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said.
In a statement, Buhari voiced confidence that Okonjo-Iweala’s track record of “integrity, diligence, and passion for development will continue to yield positive results and rewards to mankind” as she takes up another “onerous task of service to the world and humanity.”
WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell said the next year or two will be a window of opportunity for multilateralism, and that WTO members should seize it in order to achieve some tangible positive results. “I think we need to take advantage of this opportunity, and deliver something for the people of the world, because I think they’re counting on us,” Rockwell said.
The urgent need for sweeping reforms, especially those of the organization’s three major functions of dispute settlement, multilateral trade negotiations and trade policy monitoring, is posing a challenge for Okonjo-Iweala. The reform process may involve painful, comprehensive and large-scale restructuring and reorganization.
The WTO’s dispute settlement body is currently paralyzed because it does not have enough judges. The Appellate Body, considered as the supreme court for global trade disputes, is supposed to have seven judges and needs a minimum of three to function.
The U.S. administration under former President Donald Trump blocked the nomination of new judges, leaving the Appellate Body unable to hear new disputes.