Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: An insight on the journey to WTO

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the 7th and current Director General of the World Trade Organization. She became the first African woman to clinch the position in March 2021. 

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the global body that deals with issues and rules of trading among nations. The major aim of the WTO is to ensure that trade runs easily between nations of the world.

The WTO performs the role of a global arbiter for trade disputes, it enacts global trade rules and policies, offers support to developing countries’ demands and acts as a platform for global trade discussions. 

The WTO was established in January 1995, the organization currently has over 160 members accounting for over 90% of the world’s countries. The WTO has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland and possesses over 600 staff. 

This article chronicles the life of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and her journey to the World Trade Organization’s headquarters.

Humble Beginnings of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Okonjo-Iweala was born on June 13, 1954, in the Ogwashi-Ukwu community of Delta state to Professor Chukwuka Okonjo and Kamene Okonjo, Professor Okonjo served as the Obi (King) of the Obahai royal family in Ogwashi-Ukwu community at the time of Okonjo-Iweala’s birth. 

Born into royalty, Okonjo-Iweala received her primary education at the Queen’s School, Enugu in 1966, she later had her secondary education at St. Anne’s School and the International School both at Ibadan. In 1973, Okonjo-Iweala was admitted to study Economics at Harvard University. Okonjo-Iweala later went on to earn a master’s in city planning and a Doctorate in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1978 and 1981 respectively. 

Okonjo-Iweala’s career growth

Okonjo-Iweala started her career at the World Bank, where she worked for over 20 years rising to the position of Managing Director of the World Bank. While at the World Bank, Okonjo-Iweala was significant to the establishment and supervision of a series of initiatives and policies that assisted poor-income countries to access loans and support from the Bank. One such circumstance was in 2010 when Okonjo-Iweala chaired the famous IDA replenishment, which was aimed at raising funding of up to $40 billion as grants to the world’s poorest countries.

In 2003, Okonjo-Iweala left the World Bank to Nigeria, on the appointment by the former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, as Finance Minister. The former World Bank Managing Director served as Finance Minister for four years under the Obasanjo administration, at this time she was the first woman to hold that position since the creation of Nigeria in 1914.

As Finance Minister, Okonjo-Iweala initiated discussions with the Paris Club that saw the clearing of Nigeria’s $30 billion debt.

Also, Okonjo-Iweala introduced reforms aimed at clearing corruption in government, reforms from publishing the revenue sharing structure between the Federal government, states and the local government; saving the excess revenues from crude into an excess crude account and most of all setting the pace for increased savings by states in the Federation. She completed her service in 2006 and returned to the World Bank.

In 2011, Okonjo-Iweala was re-appointed as Finance Minister under the Goodluck Jonathan tenure. The appointment was doubled with the coordinating minister of the economy, which saw her set the pace for the overall management of the country’s economy and finances with pivotal successes.

While as Finance minister under Jonathan, Okonjo-Iweala created the Treasury Single Accounts and the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Management System, which saw the elimination of thousands of ghost workers from the federal government’s workforce. 

Okonjo-Iweala was pivotal in proffering solutions that saw the general improvement of the country’s economy. In 2013, she recommended and spearheaded the re-basing of Nigeria’s gross domestic product, this action saw the country become Africa’s largest economy the same year. Okonjo-Iweala has empowered small and medium enterprises through several initiatives proposed by her.

Furthermore, Okonjo-Iweala served on the Finance Committee of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the High-Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda for the United Nations.

She also served on varying organizations and institutions, as well as a member of the Twitter Board of Trustees until she was removed in 2022. in 2020, the African Union appointed Okonjo-Iweala as an international envoy to solicit the international community for support of the continent to deal with the ravaging effect of COVID-19; a duty she had undertaken directly following her nomination.

On the road to the World Trade Organization

The President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, appointed Okonjo-Iweala as Nigeria’s nomination for the position of Director General to the WTO. Her appointment followed several controversies, the first of which was that Okonjo-Iweala wasn’t Nigeria’s original selection by the President. 

Nigeria’s original selection for the role was Yunov Agah, nonetheless, following the popularity of Okonjo-Iweala, the country was forced to make a last-minute change just a few days before the deadline. The African Union’s legal counsel and the Islamic Republic of Egypt had kicked against the change made by Nigeria, the reason being that Nigeria had not presented Okonjo-Iweala before the African Union before her selection, which is in line with the roles. Despite this shortfall, the WTO concluded that Okonjo-Iweala was eligible to contest, insofar as, Nigeria appointed her before the deadline.

Another controversy was the refusal from the United States of America. For the election to the office of the Director General of the WTO, unanimous consent of all 164 member states must be achieved. Nonetheless, Okonjo-Iweala had clinched all 163 member states, excluding the US. The reason for the US denying consent was two folds, the first being lack of due process as identified above with the African Union and the second being a claim that Okonjo-Iweala had no track record in trade all through her career. 

Nonetheless, the US subsequently gave consent and Okonjo-Iweala was consequently appointed as the Director General of the WTO, which she held to date.


The WTO boss has achieved great strides in her role as an employee at the World Bank and as a two-time Finance Minister in Nigeria. Expectations are high for her performance on the world stage as the Director General of the WTO.

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Richard Okoroafor

Richard Okoroafor

Richard is a brilliant legal content writer who doubles as a finance lawyer. He brings his wealth of legal knowledge in corporate commercial transactions to bear, offering the best value that exceeds expectations.

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