Historic day for WTO as first female and first African takes the helm

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The World Trade Organization’s first female and first African director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala began work on Monday, ending a six-month leadership void at the global trade watchdog.

After a long campaign that was derailed in the late stages by a Trump administration veto, the 66-year-old Nigerian was finally confirmed as boss last month, pledging to “forget business as usual” at the body which is struggling to strike new deals and whose arbitration functions are paralysed.

The new Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala arrives at the WTO headquarters to take office, in Geneva, Switzerland, 01 March 2021. The 66-year-old Nigerian former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will assume her post as the new Director-General of the WTO on 01 March after she was confirmed for the office on 15 February. EPA-EFE/FABRICE COFFRINI / POOL

“It feels great. I am coming into one of the most important institutions in the world and we have a lot of work to do. I feel ready to go,” Okonjo-Iweala told a reporter on arrival at the WTO’s lakeside Geneva headquarters.

The first day of the former finance and foreign minister at the helm of the WTO coincides with a meeting of its top decision-making body, the General Council. Its 164 member states will discuss topics such as trade rules on COVID-19 vaccine distribution which Okonjo-Iweala has identified as a priority.

On the agenda is also the date and venue for its major ministerial conference which was due to be held in Kazakhstan last year but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Okonjo-Iweala has said she hopes that event will provide a venue for clinching various deals including on cutting fisheries subsidies and reform of the WTO’s top appeals body which was paralysed by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Her predecessor Brazilian Roberto Azevedo stepped down on Aug. 31, a year early.

Since the director-general role holds few executive powers, some analysts question Okonjo-Iweala’s ability to revive the body in the face of so many challenges including persistent U.S.-China trade tensions and growing protectionism heightened by the pandemic.

Main Photo: New Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (L), walks at the entrance of the WTO following a photo-op upon her arrival at the WTO headquarters to take office, in Geneva, Switzerland, 01 March 2021. Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala takes the reins of the WTO amid hope she will infuse the beleaguered body with fresh momentum to address towering challenges and a pandemic-fuelled global economic crisis. EPA-EFE/FABRICE COFFRINI / POOL

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