WTO Director General Standoff Ends, Nigeran Candidate Takes Helm

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, black woman wearing glasses and cloth headdress that matches her dress
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Feb 16, 2021
WASHINGTON, DC -- Following the early resignation of Roberto Azevêdo as director general and an extended election standoff, the World Trade Organization (WTO) finally has its next leader in Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was a leading contender from the early stages of the race.  In addition to bringing her strong experience to the role, she will also be the first woman and first African to lead the WTO.

The director general of the WTO is responsible for supervising and directing the organization's administrative operations.  “This is a critical role at a time when the WTO is in turmoil,” said Peter Bachmann, USA Rice vice president of international trade policy.  “The list of agenda items at the WTO is long, and we look forward to the stability that we hope Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will bring as the new director general.”

A statement by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), released on February 5, said, “The Biden-Harris Administration is pleased to express its strong support for the candidacy of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director General of the WTO.  Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister.”

The race for director general began in the summer of 2020 and was narrowed to two candidates, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and Ms. Yoo Myung-hee, trade minister of South Korea.  While the Nigerian candidate had near-universal support from WTO representatives, the United States under President Trump signaled preference for the South Korean candidate and blocked the advancement of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

Following the inauguration of President Biden in January, the U.S. objection to Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy was lifted, the South Korean candidate formally withdrew from the race, and the process advanced.  The General Council of the WTO convened yesterday and officially appointed the new director general.

The USTR statement also said, “It is particularly important to underscore that two highly qualified women made it to the final round of consideration for the position of WTO Director General -- the first time that any woman has made it to this stage in the history of the institution.”