Who is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala? The first woman at the head of the WTO

Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (66) will be the new Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The 164 members took that decision by consensus, the organization announced. Okonjo-Iweala has had to endure quite a lot during her career. When she tried to tackle the problem of corruption in Nigeria, her mother was kidnapped.

Okonjo-Iweala will be the first woman and first black woman to head the WTO, the highest trade function there is. Her main task will be to make the WTO decisive again. A tough job after the previous American president Donald Trump made a mess of it. He simply ignored trade rules and all kinds of import tariffs. He also stopped appointing new judges to “the terrible institution”, as Trump repeatedly called the WTO.

‘The WTO needs a leader. A fresh look, an outsider, someone with the capacity to carry out reforms and to work with members to ensure that the WTO escapes its partial paralysis,’ Okonjo-Iweala told CNN last year.


The new Director-General of the WTO was born in 1954 in Nigeria, then under British colonial control. She graduated as an economist from Harvard University and held a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Who is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala? The first woman at the head of the WTO
©AFP – Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala

She is known as a good negotiator who can forge compromises. Okonjo-Iweala gained experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. Among other things, she worked for 25 years as a development economist at the World Bank. There, she eventually became a director. She also served twice as Nigeria’s Minister of Finance (2003-2006 and 2011-2015).

Last year, Forbes Africa named Okonjo-Iweala its African of the Year. In the same year, she also became Special Envoy Covid-19 for the African Union and sat on the board of Gavi, an organization that aims to distribute the number of vaccines relatively around the world.

Fight against corruption

The fight against corruption is one of the priorities of the new Director-General of the WTO. She introduced reforms that brought more stability to the Nigerian economy, but that was anything but smooth sailing.

In her book ‘Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story Behind the Headlines’ from 2008, Okonjo-Iweala testifies about her time as Minister of Finance. When she wanted to tackle fraudulent practices in the oil industry, her 83-year-old mother was kidnapped. The kidnappers demanded that she announced her resignation on national television. Okonjo-Iweala immediately refused this demand.

Will Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala take the head of the WTO?
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

After a ransom was put on the table, the mother was released. She had managed to overhear a conversation between the kidnappers about oil subsidies. ‘I had stepped on the toes of some very rich and powerful people involved in a corruption scandal in Nigeria called the oil subsidy scam,’ Okonjo-Iweala wrote in her book.

As if that was not enough, Okonjo-Iweala subsequently faced a smear campaign. Yet, she continued to fight corruption. For this steadfastness, the corruption watchdog ‘Transparency International’ put Okonjo-Iweala among the ‘eight inspiring anti-corruption women fighters’ two years ago.


Never before has a woman been at the head of the WTO. After six men, it is now Okonjo-Iweala’s turn. She succeeds Robert Azevêdo, who was Director-General from 2013 to August last year.

Who is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala? The first woman at the head of the WTO
Ngozi becomes the first woman at the head of the WTO

The Trump administration tried to block her candidacy, but US President Joe Biden led trade officials to express their support openly. In the end, Okonjo-Iwealade won against South Korean Minister of Commerce Yoo Myung-hee after a four-month selection process.

The new top woman takes over the World Trade Organization at a difficult time. After all, global trade is severely affected by the corona pandemic, and there have been repeated mounting tensions between the major countries in recent years.

Okonjo-Iweala emphasizes that she cannot get the WTO on the track alone. This requires international cooperation, it says. “In my native language, Igbo, there is a saying: ‘Aka nri kwọọ aka ekpe, aka ekpe akwọọ aka nri, ha abuọ adi ọcha’ (Translated to English: If the right-hand washes the left-hand, then, the left-hand will also wash the right-hand, they both become clean).

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