Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the Director-General selection process in July 2020. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/World Trade Organization

On March 1, 2021, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will make history – again. The former Nigerian Finance Minister will become the first woman and first African Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO deals with the global rules of trade between nations.

Her nomination comes only several months after the Trump administration had opposed her candidacy – the only geographic region at the trade body to do so. Her appointment became cleared when President Joe Biden announced his support for the candidate. Her term will extend through August 2025.

Okonjo-Iweala is taking the lead at a tumultuous time for the organization beleaguered by the global economic and health challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Given the interconnectedness of the world’s economies, a collective response to current and emerging challenges will always be stronger than individual responses,” Okonjo-Iweala told the WTO General Council last fall. “As we put it in my Igbo language, ‘Aka nni Kwo aka ekpe, aka ekepe akwo akanni wancha adi ocha’ (If the right washes the left hand, and the left hand washes the right hand, then both become clean). This is a call for collective action.”

Born in Nigeria, Okonjo-Iweala holds dual U.S. citizenship. She studied in the United States and graduated from Harvard University in 1976 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Her impressive career of firsts began as she became the first woman Finance Minister of Nigeria, where she held that position for two terms. After her first term as Finance Minister, she became Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs – again, becoming the first woman to hold that role. As Nigeria’s Finance Minister, she played a key role in the biggest single debt relief in Africa’s history when they revealed a plan to eradicate $31 billion of debts owed by Nigeria in 2005.

“We are thrilled by this news,” she told The Guardian at the time. “It will mean more money for roads, rural electricity, health, education, and HIV/Aids.”

A true trailblazer for women, she was also the first female to run for the World Bank presidency. During her 25-year career at the World Bank, she oversaw $81 billion worth of operations and pushed for economic growth and development in poorer countries. 

Her nomination empowers and inspires women across the globe, especially Nigerian women who feel as though she cleared a path for them. After her historic appointment, Nigerians took to social media to celebrate, posting pictures donning Okonjo-Iweala’s signature outfit: a full gear and head tie in African wax prints known as Ankara. The hashtags #AnkaraArmy and #BeLikeNgoziChallenge have been shared more than 30,000 times already.

Okonjo-Iweala is expected to support female participation in global trade. In her WTO job application, Okonjo-Iweala said, “it should also be responsive to the challenge of facilitating the greater participation of women in international trade, particularly in developing countries, where greater efforts should be made to include women-owned enterprises in the formal sector,” a thought that is now at least one step closer to reality.

Okonjo-Iweala will bring a new, fresh perspective to the organization – a perspective much needed to mend the issues of distrust among WTO members.

“I absolutely do feel an additional burden, I can’t lie about that,” Okonjo-Iweala said about being the first woman and African to hold the post. “Being the first woman and the first African means that one really has to perform.”

She goes on to further solidify her stance. “All credit to members for electing me and making that history, but the bottom line is that if I want to really make Africa and women proud I have to produce results, and that’s where my mind is at now.”

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