Former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (center) answers questions in Geneva in July, following her hearing before representatives of the World Trade Organization’s 164 member states, as part of her application to lead the WTO as director general. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
After the head of the World Trade Organization stepped down in August, member countries overwhelmingly rallied behind a successor: 163 nations backed the Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a two-time finance minister who ascended the ranks of the World Bank.
Every member but one: Donald Trump’s America.
Okonjo-Iweala was poised to become the first woman and African national to lead the global body in its 25-year history until the United States emerged as the lone holdout. Electing her would be “a mistake,” the Trump administration’s chief trade negotiator said, citing a lack of trade experience.
Her fortunes reversed with the election of President Biden, who signaled support for Okonjo-Iweala on Friday, all but assuring her victory in the everyone-must-agree race once members meet to vote in Geneva.
For the United States, dropping resistance to Okonjo-Iweala’s selection represented Biden’s first concrete step toward distinguishing his trade policy from Trump’s and fulfilling his promise to revive international cooperation.
But for Okonjo-Iweala, securing that backing is only the start of what promises to be a grueling diplomatic assignment.
Even supporters of the WTO agree that it needs substantial changes in deciding and enforcing the rules of global trade. Trump’s refusal to permit the appointment of new judges kneecapped its appellate system and ability to settle disputes. Rules that require all-member approval thwart any agility.
Okonjo-Iweala’s first priority would be to ease the flow of goods — particularly protective gear, drugs and vaccines — at a time when countries are hoarding supplies, she said.
“Global recovery cannot take place without trade,” she said in a recent Zoom interview. “That is where my mind is. That is my number one.”
When the Trump administration dismissed her candidacy in October, Okonjo-Iweala stayed mostly quiet. The Americans had endorsed a rival she admired: Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister who worked on the revised U.S.-Korea trade pact Trump lauded in 2018.
But Okonjo-Iweala didn’t expect Robert E. Lighthizer, the outgoing U.S. trade representative, to bash her credentials in a January interview with the Financial Times.
She has “no experience in trade at all,” he said. “We need a person who actually knows trade, not somebody from the World Bank who does development.” (Lighthizer did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Nigerian candidate, who became a U.S. citizen in 2019, rejected that view.
“When you’re a woman of color in a leadership position — a woman, first of all, and then of color — these comments are not too surprising,” she said. “You see them as you make your leadership journey.”
In Nigeria, she said, she oversaw the trade minister’s work.
“My résumé speaks for itself,” she said.
This March 2015 photo shows the mother of a missing Chibok schoolgirl laying the foundation for new classrooms at a school burned down by Boko Haram fighters as then-Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (center) applauds in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. (Sunday Aghaeze/AFP/Getty Images)
Okonjo-Iweala met Lighthizer twice for virtual interviews last year. She recalled the conversations as routine and pleasant.
The disconnect reminded her of advice from her late father, a mathematician and diplomat. His words became her mantra as she left home to study economics at Harvard University in 1973.
“If you encounter a problem because you are a woman and you’re Black and you’re African, take that problem, that weakness they have, and make it your strength,” she said. “Keep going.”
She went on to earn her doctorate at MIT. She spent 25 years at the World Bank, climbing to the No. 2 role. She sits on the boards of Twitter and GAVI, the international vaccine alliance focused on distributing doses to developing nations.
“She has championed causes and people who have been left behind,” said Una Osili, treasurer and research director for the Association for the Advancement of African Women Economists.
Okonjo-Iweala was the first woman to serve as Nigeria’s finance minister, holding the role from 2003 to 2006 and then again from 2011 to 2015.
During her tenures, she drew praise for significantly reducing the country’s debt and fierce criticism for slashing fuel subsidies — a move that initially doubled gas prices and triggered protests nationwide. (The policy was aimed at reducing phony claims, Okonjo-Iweala said, while redirecting money into public services.)
Her efforts to quash fraud sparked ire that she said led to her elderly mother’s brief kidnapping in 2012.
“She was a warrior to stop corruption,” said Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who worked with Okonjo-Iweala at the World Bank. “Very brave. With threats to her life. She stood up and pushed ahead with a clear message.”
She also steered Nigeria out of a trade disaster, said Florie Liser, the assistant U.S. trade representative for Africa under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“When I hear people say in this debate that she has no trade experience. I’m thinking: You all just don’t know,” Liser said. “You really don’t know.”
In the early 2000s, Nigeria was at risk of losing benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which gives most African nations duty-free access to the American market. At issue was a U.S. diaper producer that had invested millions in a Nigerian factory but couldn’t source the materials it needed because of steep tariffs.
“She flew to Washington, sat down with us and sorted it out,” Liser said.
Okonjo-Iweala also helped pave the way for AGOA’s very existence, said the trade law’s architect, Rosa Whitaker, who launched the United States Trade Representative’s Office of African Affairs.
At the time, the United States wanted to improve trade relations with African nations — some of which were hesitant after a history of bad deals with global powers.
“She was an informal adviser, the person we’d come to,” said Whitaker, who now runs a consultancy in Washington and Accra, Ghana. “She was ready to open doors and make it happen.”
The WTO was caught flat-footed by the Trump administration’s objection to Okonjo-Iweala’s selection.
Lighthizer saw her as allied to trade policy traditionalists such as Robert Zoellick, who during the George W. Bush administration had finalized the negotiations that brought China into the WTO, according to one Geneva-based trade official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters.
Biden has promised to scrap his predecessor’s hostility toward multilateral organizations. That explains why the other 163 WTO members have been delaying for months a final decision on the next director general until the new administration has a chance to get up to speed.
“Everybody is really, really cutting the Americans a lot of slack,” said the Geneva-based trade official. “We want these guys back.”
Global trade plummeted last year as countries sealed borders and adopted new supply-guarding rules.
As demand soared for masks and gloves, more than 100 countries and territories imposed export restrictions on coronavirus-fighting essentials, according to the International Trade Center.
Okonjo-Iweala is calling for an overhaul that would shift the collective emphasis on individual interests to helping the most vulnerable.
“No one is safe until everyone’s safe,” she said.
The stark inequality of vaccine rollouts worldwide, for instance, means inoculation will be a slow journey for much of the globe, giving the virus ample time to spawn more variants.
“Let’s straighten out the rules so they work for the world, for the ordinary human being,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “We shouldn’t just be thinking about this pandemic — we should build the framework for the next one.”