The path has been cleared for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to become the first African woman to lead the World Trade Organization. This follows the decision by her sole competitor, South Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, to drop from the race on 5 February.
The WTO Director-General job is selected by consensus and so when former US President Donald Trump refused to back her, the process was stalled until a consensus is reached.
Following the change of government in the US, a new administration led by Joe Biden renewed the hopes of many that for the first time, an African would lead the WTO.
Indeed, this was evident when a group of former US government officials urged the Biden administration to back Okonjo-Iweala, who is also a US citizen.
Below are seven things about her:
Okonjo-Iweala comes from a royal family
She was born in 1954 in Ogwashi-Ukwu, Delta State, Nigeria where her father Professor Chukwuka Okonjo was the King from the Obahai Royal Family of Ogwashi-Ukwu. Her parents were both professors at the University of Ibadan.
When she was nine, she went to live with her grandmother because her parents were in abroad schooling. In a BBC interview, she said: “They were gone for almost a decade before I really saw them and knew them.
I did everything a village girl would do, fetch water, go to the farm with my grandmother all the chores, I saw what poverty meant, to be poor at first hand.”
Okonjo-Iweala is married to Dr. Ikemba Iweala, a neurosurgeon based in Washington. They have four children – three sons, and a daughter.
The sons include Uzodinma Iweala, Okechukwu Iweala, and Uchechi Iweala while the only daughter is Onyinye Iweala.
The first woman finance minister in Nigeria
Okonjo-Iweala was appointed as the first woman Finance Minister under the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo (2003-2006) and reappointed into the same position by President Goodluck Jonathan (2011–2015).
In her capacity as Finance Minister, Okonjo-Iweala is credited with instituting various reforms in Nigeria, thereby making the country one of the best economies in the world.
The economist is credited for spearheading negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the wiping out of US$30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of US$18 billion.
She is also credited with improving Nigeria’s economic outlook, helping Africa’s biggest economy obtain its first-ever sovereign credit rating (of BB minus) from Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s in 2006.
Number 2 position at the World Bank
Okonjo-Iweala had a career at the World Bank as a development economist spanning 25 years. During that period, she rose through the ranks to become the Managing Director, the number two position or the second most important position at the World Bank.
Also, she was the Chair of the IDA replenishment, a successful initiative of the World Bank to raise $49.3 billion in grants and low-interest credit for the poorest countries in the world.
In addition, she had oversight responsibility for the World Bank’s $81 billion operational portfolios in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia.
She schooled at the Queen’s School, Enugu, St. Anne’s School, Molete, Ibadan, and the International School Ibadan. In 1973, she moved to the United States to attend college as the prestigious Harvard University.
At Harvard, she graduated with an AB in Economics in 1976. She later obtained a PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Her thesis was Credit policy, rural financial markets, and Nigeria’s agricultural development. What is more, Okonjo-Iweala received an International Fellowship from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which supported her doctoral studies.
Okonjo-Iweala serves on a number of boards including Standard Chartered PLC and Twitter Inc. She was Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (2016 – 2020) and of the African Risk Capacity, ARC (2014 – 2020).
In the past, she served as Senior Advisor at Lazard from September 2015 – October 2019. Dr Okonjo-Iweala was recently appointed as AU COVID-19 Special Envoy (Finance) and WHO COVID-19 Special Envoy (ACT-Accelerator). She is the Director General-designate of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
International awards and recognition
The Transparency International in 2019 named Okonjo-Iweala as one of the eight (8) Female Anti-Corruption Fighters Who Inspire. She has also received several awards and recognition, including being listed by the UK UK Guardian as one of the Top 100 Women in the World in 2011.
Time as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2014, Fortune as one of the 50 Greatest World Leaders in 2015, the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy. Also, she was consecutively ranked by Forbes as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in the World. In 2020, Forbes named Okonjo-Iweala as African of the Year.
Also, Nigeria’s This Day newspaper named her as the Minister of the Decade, People’s Choice Award in 2020. She also received the International Service Award of the World Affairs Councils of America and the Aminu Kano Award for Leadership in 2020.
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