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Trade

Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala confirmed as WTO chief

She becomes the first woman and first African to lead the embattled trade body

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the first woman and the first African to lead the World Trade Organization.   © Reuters

GENEVA (Reuters) -- Three months after the Trump administration rejected her, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala received unanimous backing on Monday to become the first woman and first African director-general of the World Trade Organization.

A self-declared "doer" with a track record of taking on seemingly intractable problems, Okonjo-Iweala will have her work cut out for her at the trade body, even with Donald Trump, who had threatened to pull the United States out of the organisation, no longer in the White House.

As director-general, a position that wields limited formal power, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, will need to broker international trade talks in the face of persistent U.S.-China conflict; respond to pressure to reform trade rules; and counter protectionism heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her acceptance speech at the WTO, she said that getting a trade deal at the next major ministerial meeting would be a "top priority" and also urged members to reject vaccine nationalism, according to a delegate attending the closed-door meeting.

In the same speech, she described the challenges facing the body as "numerous and tricky but not insurmountable".

A 25-year veteran of the World Bank, where she oversaw an $81 billion portfolio, Okonjo-Iweala ran against seven other candidates by espousing a belief in trade's ability to lift people out of poverty.

She studied development economics at Harvard after experiencing civil war in Nigeria as a teenager. She returned to the country in 2003 to serve as finance minister and backers point to her hard-nose negotiating skills that helped seal a deal to cancel billions of dollars of Nigerian debt with the Paris Club of creditor nations in 2005.

"She brings stature, she brings experience, a network and a temperament of trying to get things done, which is quite a welcome lot in my view," former WTO chief Pascal Lamy told Reuters. "I think she's a good choice." Key to her success will be her ability to operate in the centre of a "U.S.-EU-China triangle", he said.

The endorsement of the Biden administration cleared the last obstacle to her appointment.

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