Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Monday resumed duty as the director general of the World Trade Organisation, weeks after her appointment was endorsed by the United States and approved by the trade organization.
Her appointment was ratified on February 15.
“WTO members have just agreed to appoint Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next director-general,” the global trade body said in a statement.
Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first African to lead WTO.
But her appointment was almost scuppered by the former American president Donald Trump, whose administration preferred South Korea’s trade minister Yoo Myung-hee for the job.
Trump administration’s insistence on Minister Yoo delayed was in spite of Okonjo-Iweala’s endorsement by the key ambassadors of the WTO last October.
But her path to the WTO top job was cleared after Trump was defeated at the polls and the South Korean minister dropping her dream.
President Joe Biden subsequently endorsed the Nigerian for the position, with the US Trade Representative praising her “wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy”.
She is hitting the ground running, with her first day on the job in Geneva coinciding with the annual meeting of WTO’s General Council.
Delegates are expected to agree that the organisation’s next ministerial conference, which had been scheduled for last year but was postponed due to the pandemic, will be held in Geneva in December.
The question remains whether the new WTO chief, considered a strong-willed trailblazer, will be able to mould the organisation in her image before then.
While some observers voice hope that Okonjo-Iweala will inject much-needed energy, others stress she has little wiggle room to make dramatic change, given that WTO decisions are made by member states — and only when they can reach consensus.
One of her first tasks will be to nominate four new deputy directors to help recharge the organisation’s negotiating mechanisms.
Okonjo-Iweala has said that one of her main objectives is to push long-blocked trade talks on fishery subsidies across the finish line in time for the ministerial conference, but with negotiations dragging on, that could be a tough sell.
And in the midst of a global economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, she has plenty of other challenges on her plate.
Okonjo-Iweala has voiced concern about growing protectionism and nationalism during the coronavirus crisis and insists trade barriers must be lowered to help the world recover.
Among the issues to be discussed Monday is a controversial push for the WTO to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines.
Dozens of nations say this would help boost production and access and would rein in the pandemic sooner, but the notion has been fiercely rejected by pharmaceutical giants and the countries that host them.
Okonjo-Iweala chaired the Gavi vaccine alliance before running for the WTO and has made tackling the pandemic another of her priorities.
In a likely bid to avoid a row on day one, Ngozi has called for flexibility, encouraging voluntary licencing agreements, such as the one agreed between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India, whereby the SII factory manufactures the pharmaceutical giant’s Covid-19 vaccines.
The Ottawa Group, which brings together the EU and 12 countries including Brazil, Canada and Switzerland, will meanwhile demand that countries commit not to hinder the flow of medical goods during the pandemic, and remove customs duties on those considered essential.
Another daunting challenge facing the new director-general will be following through on her vow to breathe life back into the appeals branch of the WTO’s dispute settlement system.
The Appellate Body, sometimes called the supreme court of world trade, ground to a halt in December 2019 after years of relentless US opposition.
The United States, along with European countries and Canada, want an overhaul at the WTO, believing it has not responded correctly to the trade distortions caused by China.
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