The Nigerian Harvard Alumnus Who Could Make World Trade Organization More Relevant…And Less Boring
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaking at her first press conference after being appointed as the new WTO Director General on Monday.

IBADAN, NIGERIA – She is happy to be breaking World Health Organization (WTO) ceilings for women and Africans – but has always been a disrupter and technocrat who is used to making changes that stand the test of time and put those in need at the center — even when it is unpopular. 

Beginning on 1 March 2021, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will become the first woman and African to take the helm as Director General of the WTO. While this feat is resonating across the world, it is not the first time the Nigeria-born and US-educated development economist has broken global records. She also did so whilst holding senior positions as Finance and later Economics Minister in the Nigerian government. Iweala was widely regarded and even revered as one of the country’s most able technocrats – sustaining major achievements like the renegotiation of Nigeria’s crippling foreign debt – while suffering personal tragedies of her own.

Young Iweala with her now husband while in college.

Iweala was just six years old when her country gained independence from its British colonial masters. Just 60 years later, she has become one of Nigeria’s—and indeed one of Africa’s—frontline technocrats working with national governments and politicians while remaining relevant on the global scene. 

Princess in Nigeria’s Southern Delta Region   

Born in Ogwashi Ukwu in southern Nigeria’s Delta region, Iweala is an indigene of a town that has  produced several notable Africans, including Olympics medalists and the phenomenal football legend, JJ Okocha. But Iweala is not just an indigene of the town, she is also known to Nigerians as a princess of the city considering that her father, Professor Chukwuka Okonjo, was the Obi (King) from the Obahai Royal Family of Ogwashi-Ukwu.

Her early years were spent modestly; she lived with her grandmother in her hometown while her parents studied abroad. But education was always a family priority; she attended a series of top-notch schools that flourished in this period, including Queen’s School, in Enugu State, followed by St. Anne’s School, Molete, in the city of Ibadan, and then the International School of Ibadan. 

In 1973, she moved to the United States to study economics at Harvard University, graduating in 1976. She loved the education she had at Harvard – later ensuring that all four of her children would also have a Harvard education.  

5 Harvard graduates in one family. Iweala with her husband Dr.Ikemba Iweala, a neurosurgeon, and their four children.

Five years after leaving Harvard, Iweala finished her PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1981 – her thesis focusing on credit policy, rural financial markets, and Nigeria’s agricultural development.

Twenty-five Year World Bank Career

Throughout her travails in the face of opposition from President Donald Trump-led US government, supporters of Iweala spoke glowingly of her credentials, both in her national government roles and her World Bank career that spanned 25-years – and where she rose to the position of Managing Director, overseeing the financial institution’s $US 81 billion operational portfolio in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia.

During her term as Nigeria’s finance minister, from 2003-2006 Iweala led discussions and negotiations that resulted in the Paris Club wiping out US$30 billion of Nigeria’s debt. She was also instrumental in the creation of the Nigerian government’s excess crude oil account — in which revenues accruing above a reference benchmark oil price are saved in the special account for use to stabilize the country’s economy and smooth out the impact of price volatility in oil exports. 

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the 2004 Spring Meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group when she was the Finance Minister of Nigeria.

Over 18 years later, the policy is still being implemented, and it has helped Nigeria in protecting itself from today’s volatile oil market. In February 2014, the account had a balance of about US $3.6 billion – although over the past few years of global oil price decreases, the account has been drawn down dramatically by the current government to its current balance of just  $72.4 million in January 2021.

In a later term, as Minister of Economics, she tackled corruption frontally – instituting a practice whereby the national government began to publish the monthly financial allocation that each state received from the federal government in the national dailies with the aim of improving transparency in governance. This is still being done to date.

Her policies met a challenge of the most personal nature. 

On 9 December 2012, Iweala’s mother, Prof Kamene Okonjo, was kidnapped from the family home in Ogwashi-Uku, with the kidnappers demanding Iweala’s resignation. After three days her mother was freed, and Iweala went public. 

“My mother, a retired professor, was held without food or water. The kidnappers spent much of the time harassing her. They told her that I must get on the radio and television and announce my resignation,” Iweala later said.

The kidnappers, she said, were most likely driven by her intervention to address a US$ 6.8 billion oil subsidy scam.

Within Nigeria, Iweala has been a rallying force driving public attention to previously ignored ministries, agencies and issues – including issues where health, well-being and economics converge. 

This same drive has already been evident in her rise to the leadership of the WTO—an organisation that many Nigerians did not know much about – before the US opposition to her candidacy drew vast attention from different quarters to the election process.

In another term at the World Bank, between her stints in the Nigerian national government, she led the organization’s initiatives to assist low-income countries during the 2008-09 food crisis that coincided with the US stock market crash and global recession – rising to the position of managing director. 

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Managing Director of the World Bank at a World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings Water and Sanitation Event in Washington, DC in 2010.
Iweala’s Critics and Targeted Attacks

Inasmuch as Iweala’s rise to the top of the WTO is being celebrated, it has also not been void of controversies.  Iweala’s years of experience at the World Bank means that she is also closely associated with an institution that many progressive critics say can use economic policies to reinforce global inequalities.

In its publication on the criticisms of the World Bank, the Bretton Woods Project noted that power imbalance in the World Bank meant there is structural under-representation of the Global South.

From a policy point of view, some critics will no doubt say that Iweala’s long sojourn at the World Bank means she is well aligned with its more regressive side – including policies that can favor government reductions in social services, protections and subsides; support labour “flexibilities” and lowering of public sector wages; or increase value added taxes and other regressive tax measures- as a means of containing inflation and keeping corporate tax rates low. 

Leading on a Broader Path – Including Health, Gender & Climate

Still in terms of the WTO, which has become deeply mired in the more legalistic and tactical aspects of trade policies and disputes over the past few years, Iweala now sees herself leading the trade organization on a potentially broader path, which looks more deeply at the bigger picture issues.

She also wants the Organization to regain its stature, telling WTO members shortly after her election that: “A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In June 2020, a few weeks after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Nigeria, Iweala was on a World Economic Forum podcast where, among other things, she revealed that while globalisation is good, COVID-19 has shown that individual countries would need to reassess their supply chain, and ensure that a certain basic minimum of the supply chain is either locally available or accessible when the needs arise – to avoid the rush for gloves and surgical masks seen then.  

“If we are rebuilding and creating jobs through infrastructure, do we build them back in the old way or do we look for low carbon emission more climate friendly ways to do it?” she asked.

And the gender agenda can also be integrated into that, by putting women and youth more at the center of decision making.

“Very often they [women] are not consulted in the way they should and this pandemic has affected them differently. Take women, for example, they’re the bulk of frontline workers in terms of nurses, community, health workers, and so on. But are they really consulted in the way decisions are made? The answer is no,” Iweala has said.

The Critical Moment for WTO – in the Post Trump Era 

WTO may have been sigficantly weakened by the bigger geopolitical and economic battles at play – between the United States and China as well as global haves and have nots. But those also were sharply exacerbated over the past four years by the administration of former US President Donald Trump. 

The Trump administration not only blocked Iweala’s election as WTO DG, it also effectively blocked one of WTO’s most important functions, that of of resolving trade disputes between countries – by blocking the appointment of new judges to the trade dispute mechanism – thus paralyzing the global organisation.

Along with unlocking Iweala’s stalled appointment, it is now hoped that new US administration of President Joe Biden will also help facilitate the appointment of judges to the WTO appellate body, so that the organisation can resume its adjudication responsibilities in trade disputes between countries. 

In a press conference Monday, just after her election, Iweala recalled the moment at which she learned of the Biden administration’s decision to support her candidacy as “absolutely wonderful…. when the Biden-Harris administration came in and broke that logjam joined the consensus and and gave me such a strong endorsement.

But she said that she hasn’t taken much time to celebrate, adding that as the first African and woman to assume the helm of the WTO “I absolutely do feel an additional burden” as well.

“Being the first woman and the first African means that one really has to perform,” she said. “It’s groundbreaking, and all credit members for electing me and making that history. But the bottom line is that if I want to really make Africa, and women proud I have to produce results, and that’s where my mind is at. Now, how do we work together with members to get results.”

Image Credits: WTO, Facebook, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr – World Bank Photo Collection.

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