Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala Pledges To Make Health & Climate Major WTO Priorities – Following Historic Election as Director General
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, next WTO Director General, speaking at a press conference Monday, just after her election.

Nigeria’s former finance minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has become the first woman and first African to be elected as Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

In a press conference just hours after her historic election, she signalled that she would reboot the WTO’s mission, making both health and climate twin cornerstones of global trade – including sustainable oceans and fisheries. She said that she would look for ways to make existing WTO intellectual property flexbilities (TRIPS) s work to stimulate the manufacture of vaccines and other health products in low-income countries – as well as removing trade restrictions impeding the free flow of health products between countries.

On the climate and environment, Dr Ngozi, as she said she would prefer to be called, said an unfinisheries fisheries treaty was “low-hanging fruit” that could he harnessed to promoting more sustainable fisheries and oceans.  She also said she would introduce the climate agenda into the WTO chambers – where it has rarely been discussed – with initiatives to support of low-carbon trade whilst discouraging trade in high-carbon emitting products.  And she said she would look for ways to support countries implementation of carbon taxes. 

The incoming WTO DG also said that she would seek to get quick agreement for an exemption of the World Food Programme from national food restrictions – which impede the humanitarian work of the Nobel prize-winning organization among communities locked in crisis and conflict.

And as critical facilitator for all of the WTO’s policies and rules, the Organization’s moribund trade dispute settlement system urgently needs a reboot, she added.  Calling the issue of the dispute system “the jewel in the crown of the WTO.  But there is no point in agreeing to more rules, where the only pleace in the world where countries can bring trade disputes does not work – it’s paralyzed. SO it’s a priority to really reform that and take account of the inputs of our members to make sure that we come up with a dispute settlement system that works for all.”

President Buhari – Today the United States Stands With Nigeria & Africa 

Iweala’s electon was greeted with enthusiasm in Nigeria where she served twice as the finance minister: between 2003 and 2006 under under President Olusegun Obasanjo and between 2011 and 2015 President Goodluck Jonathan respectively. She has also had a 25-year career at the World Bank.

Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari said his country “certainly welcome the decision of the new US administration to remove the last obstacle in the path of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to becoming the first female and the first person of African descent to lead the organisation.

“Today, we see that the United States stands with Nigeria and Africa, with the acceptance of our widely respected citizen, Okonjo-Iweala to lead the WTO. We look forward to working very closely with the new U.S administration on this and all issues of common interests, especially in such areas as accelerated economic growth, fight against terrorism and deepening progress on development issues,” Buhari stated.

Pandemic, Pandemic, Pandemic

“The priorities will be one- working on solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr Ngozi, in the press briefing, framing it as the number one global humanitarian and economic problem – “I think this is an issue of lives.  We are losing lives in all countries all over the world, but in poor countries, if we don’t act, more lives will be lost,” she said. .

But she also stressed that pandemic relief would help rich countries as well as poorer ones – insofar as poor countries will continue to be fertile ground for new and dangerous variants of the SARS-CoV2 virus if vaccination coverage remains inadequate.

“When this kind of thing happens, is very natural for leaders and politicians to want to take care of their own population,” she said, but. “Taking care of your population, and being nationalistic with respect to vaccines won’t work this time, because even if you get everyone vaccinated and there’s a country down the road that hasn’t done that, it’ll come back in the way of variants.

So one of the things that we would like to do is to see what the WTO can do under the TRIPS agreement to use all of the flexibilities opossible to allow countries to manufacture the available vaccines so that there can be more for poor countries quickly.”

In tackling the pandemic, Dr Ngozi also said she would tackle export restrictions on COVID-related health products – which some 100 WTO members maintain – to facilitate a freer flow of COVID-19 tests, treatments and other medical supplies. “It’s very important if we are also to come out of this pandemic, both in terms of helping make sure there’s a freer flow of medical goods and supplies to deal with the public health emergency,” she said.

The WTO will also work closely with the WHO and other multilateral co-sponsors of the global COVID-19 Tools “ACT Accelerator”, including the COVAX Vaccine facility – “which are trying to accelerate supplies and vacines to poor countries.”

A “Third Way” Out of Impasse Over WTO IP Waiver on COVID Health Products.

As an alternative to wrangling over the deadlocked proposal in the WTO TRIPS Council for a blanket “waiver” on patents and other IP rights over available tests, treatments and vaccines, Dr Ngozi said her efforts would be focused upon etching a “Third Way” – that did not entirely upend global patent regimes

She said that “Third Way” would be centered around using existing IP flexibilities, available through the existing WTO TRIPS agreement more creatively.  She said that she intended to work personally to encourage more pharma manufacturers to sign voluntary licensing deals for manufacture of their vaccines by third parties – as per the example set by AstraZeneca – which has signed agreements in India, the Republic of Korea and Brazil, among others.

“The Third Way would be one in which vaccines can be manufactured in many more countries – whilst taking care that we don’t discourager research and innovation, which is linked to intellectual property rights,” she said.

Noting that “90% of health products used on the [African] continent are imported, she also called for the expansion of pharma manufacturing in low- and middle-income countries more generally.

Beyond the immediate heatlh crisis, however, she said a system needs to be put into place for a faster and more effective global trade and economic response to similar future threats.

” I would also like to see a longer-term framework set up for response to pandemics – so we are not just solving the immediate problem, but ….we are going to have more pandemics in the future. I think the WTO should get with other international organizations like the WHO, GAVI, and the World Bank and the IMF, all of those multilaterals, to try to set the rules so that next time we don’t spend time trying to figure out how to respond,” she said.

New US Administration of Biden-Harris Ended Months of Uncertainty Over DG Election  

Okonjo-Iweala faced months of uncertainty after the administration of former United States President Donald Trump refused to “join the consensus” around her candidacy, supporting South Korea’s Trade Minister, Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea, according to a statement from the WTO released late on Monday. But shortly after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the United States signalled a change in its position – and Korea’s candidate withdrew her candidacy. 

“Following Ms Yoo’s decision on 5 February to withdraw her candidacy, the administration of newly elected US President Joseph R. Biden dropped the US objection and announced instead that Washington extends its ‘strong support’ to the candidacy of Dr Okonjo-Iweala,” the statement added. Okonjo-Iweala, in fact holds dual US and Nigerian citizenship. 

General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand who, together with co-facilitators Dacio Castillo (Honduras) and Harald Aspelund (Iceland) led the nine-month Director-General selection process, described her election as “a very significant moment for the WTO”. 

“Dr Ngozi, on behalf of all members I wish to sincerely thank you for your graciousness in these exceptional months, and for your patience,” he added.

Speaking to WTO members, just after her election, she said:  “A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again. Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today.”

Her tenure starts on 1 March and lasts until 31 August 2025.

The leadership position has been vacant since late August 2020 when Roberto Azevedo stepped down a year earlier than planned. 

Iweala is also a COVID-19 special envoy for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the African Union (AU), with the AU appointing her to mobilise international economic support for the continent’s fight against the pandemic. 

South African president and recent AU Chair, Cyril Ramaphosa, described Iweala as “an internationally respected economist and development expert”.

While shying away from full public altercations with the US government regarding its earlier opposition to Iweala’s emergence, stakeholders and several eminent personalities on the continent publicly pledged their support for Iweala.

The WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, told Health Policy Watch that she is confident about Iweala’s capacity — and hopeful that the majority choice of WTO’s 164 member governments will ultimately prevail.

“We believe in her competence and capacity for this position and we wish for an outcome, and resolution that will be based on the outcome of the election, which was an open process as we understand,” Moeti said at a press briefing.

Along with holding degrees from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Iweala also sits on a number of boards including Standard Chartered Bank, the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI), Twitter and the African Risk Capacity.

Image Credits: WTO.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.