Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Becomes First Woman, African To Lead World Trade Organization

Published 3 years ago

TOPLINE Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was appointed Monday as the director-general of the World Trade Organization, becoming the first woman and the first African national to lead the global trade body. 


  • After growing up in Nigeria during the Biafran civil war, Okonjo-Iweala studied development economics at Harvard and earned a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • She has made history throughout her career, becoming the first woman to serve as both the Nigerian finance minister in 2003 and foreign affairs minister in 2006.
  • Okonjo-Iweala was also the first woman to run for the presidency at the World Bank, where she spent more than two decades.


The appointment of Okonjo-Iweala clears a major administrative hurdle for the WTO, which has been without an official leader since former director general Roberto Azevêdo stepped down from the position a year early in August. The leadership vacuum came at the same time that the global trade referee faced an upended global supply chain from the pandemic and ongoing tariff disputes between some of the largest economies. 


“A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement. 



The Trump administration refused to back Okonjo-Iweala for the position last fall, saying she lacked trade experience. While 163 other nations coalesced behind Okonjo-Iweala, the U.S. announced in October it would officially back South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee in the everyone-must-agree race. But President Joe Biden signaled last week he would reverse efforts to block the appointment, all but ensuring unanimous support of Okonjo-Iweala at the WTO.


When Okonjo-Iweala takes office on March 1, she is set to face significant challenges following gaps in leadership and stalled trade disputes. Former President Donald Trump was highly critical of the WTO and blocked judge appointments on its key decision-making body, upending the organization at the same time that it ramped up global trade disputes.


By Gina Heeb, Forbes Staff