Sun | Sep 19, 2021

Adekeye Adebajo | Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – The Iron Lady in Geneva

Published:Sunday | February 28, 2021 | 12:19 AM
Adekeye Adebajo
Adekeye Adebajo
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala during a panel discussion "The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act", the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Okonjo-Iweala was appointed to head the World Trade Organiz
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala during a panel discussion "The Post-2015 Goals: Inspiring a New Generation to Act", the fifth annual Associated Press debate, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Okonjo-Iweala was appointed to head the World Trade Organization as it seeks to to resolve disagreements over how it decides cases involving billions in sales and thousands of jobs.

Nigeria’s former finance minister under the Olusegun Obasanjo (1999-2007) and Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015) administrations, 66-year old Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, takes over as director general of the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO) on March 1, 2021 until August 2025. She will be the first woman and the first African to serve in the post. Nicknamed Okonjo-‘Wahala’ (Troublemaker) by Nigeria’s lively press, she is also widely known as ‘the Iron Lady’ for her toughness as an anti-corruption crusader. As she menacingly warned: “I’m a fighter; I’m very focused on what I’m doing, and relentless in what I want to achieve, almost to a fault. If you get in my way you get kicked.”

Okonjo-Iweala is a competent, courageous, and intelligent Harvard-trained development economist with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT). She spent 25 years at the World Bank rising to be vice-president and managing a budget of $81 billion. She is media-savvy, with 1.5 million followers on Twitter, and revels in her celebrity status as a widely networked “Davos Dame”. Forbes named her among the 10 most influential women in the world, while Foreign Policy listed her among the top 100 global thinkers. She is on the board of Twitter, Standard Chartered, and 20 NGOs.


The WTO was created in 1995, and is the main multilateral institution that deals with trade between countries. Its 623-strong secretariat has a $217-million annual budget, and five core mandates: to facilitate implementation of multilateral trade accords; resolve trade disputes; provide a forum for multilateral trade negotiations; monitor national trade policies; and collaborate with other international organisations.

The WTO, however, has many critics who feel that the organisation has become dysfunctional, having failed to conclude any global trade-liberalising deals since the collapse of the 2001 Doha round two decades ago. Doha had been designed to prioritise the needs of developing countries. The WTO was also the forerunner of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), part of the trio of organisations – with the World Bank and the IMF – established by the US after 1945 to stabilise Western-dominated capitalist economies. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was created in 1964 under legendary Argentinian economist, Raúl Prebisch, and was much more committed to defending the interests of developing countries. The rich world, however, did not invest the resources or time in UNCTAD which has remained a poor cousin in Geneva. The WTO secretariat’s Western-dominated policy intellectuals still reflect the neo-liberal ideology of the Bretton Woods institutions from which Okonjo-Iweala herself emerged.

Xavier Carim, South Africa’s former ambassador to the WTO and one of its most skilled negotiators, has insightfully shown in a 2019 paper how the organisation has used the expansion of global markets and protecting intellectual property greatly to enrich large corporations and global finance, while restricting development space for poorer countries. As anti-globalisation street protesters have consistently argued, the actions of these ‘Lords of Poverty’ have caused widespread unemployment and inequality, resulting in the world’s 2,153 billionaires cornering more wealth than a total of 4.6 billion people: 60 per cent of the global population.

Carim further argued that rich countries have buried the Doha developmental agenda in favour of their own more parochial interests. Reform proposals led by the United States (US), the European Union (EU), and Japan, such as greater restrictions on technology transfer and reducing government industrial support, have thus been widely rejected by the global South. Many developing countries view WTO trade accords as unbalanced and detrimental to their interests: deep tariff cuts by the poor have not led to equal cuts by the rich in key export sectors; poisonous agricultural subsidies continue to choke pampered European and American farmers, even as Jamaica’s 20% (and Africa’s 70%) farming population continues to suffer from this unfair trade; while overfishing and subsidies by the rich continue disproportionately to harm the poor. Carim further noted that Northern subsidy-fuelled industrial policies have constrained the industrialisation efforts of Southern countries.


Okonjo-Iweala triumphed to lead the WTO after a gruelling nine-month race involving eight candidates. She was announced last October as the candidate with the broadest and deepest support. Only the prejudiced and petulant Trump administration held out, insisting on continuing to back South Korea’s trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee. Okonjo-Iweala was criticised for not having sufficient trade experience, but cleverly campaigned as a seasoned outsider untainted by the cosy intimacy of the Geneva bubble. She countered by noting her strong political skills, arguing that her work as Nigeria’s finance minister dealt frequently with trade. She outlined four key priorities: using her experience of working on COVID-19 vaccines as chair of GAVI and an AU envoy to promote the production of cheap generic vaccines at a time when the pandemic has reduced global trade flows by 9.2%; she pledged to accelerate global economic recovery; championed new deals on fisheries and e-commerce; and pushed for the revival of the WTO dispute settlement mechanism. Okonjo-Iweala won widespread support from the global South, as well as from the EU, China, Japan, and Australia. The Biden administration finally ended the four-month stalemate by announcing its support for Okonjo-Iweala in February.

Under the Trump administration, the US employed bogus national security arguments to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, and neutered the WTO’s appellate body for arbitrating trade disputes. Though Joe Biden will be more multilateralist, anti-China trade sentiment has become increasingly bipartisan in Washington, as Beijing continues to restrict exports and pour heavy subsidies into state-owned enterprises. Sino-American tensions are thus likely to continue, though Okonjo-Iweala is keen to halt the pernicious ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ trade policies that have contributed to past armed conflicts. She will, however, learn quickly that when two elephants fight, it is the grass underneath that suffers. Okonjo-Iweala is deeply aware that developing countries have lost hope in the WTO’s ability to deliver on their development agenda. She will thus have to walk a tightrope between rich mercantilist nations and the majority of members belonging to the Southern “trade union of the poor”.

With much less power than the United Nations secretary general, Okonjo-Iweala will be even more a ‘secretary’ than a ‘general’. She has no authority to make governments take any actions that they do not wish to. She can not arbitrate trade disputes. She is effectively a servant rather than a master of the 164 member states. Her main tools are advocacy, cajoling, convincing, and building alliances to get members to act. The widespread support for her candidacy should, however, provide some political capital from which to draw. Past WTO directors general have included the dynamic Frenchman, Pascal Lamy, and the recently departed cautious Brazilian, Roberto Azevêdo. Okonjo-Iweala has portrayed herself as a reformist new broom ready to sweep away the cobwebs of deadwood and bureaucratic inertia in order to establish a new organisation that is fit-for-purpose in the 21st century. However, Nigeria’s supremely self-confident Iron Lady will soon discover from her scenic office on Lake Geneva that she has no magic wand with which to cast a spell on member states.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Global African Affairs (IGAA) in South Africa, a joint initiative with the University of the West Indies. Send feedback to