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Okonjo-Iweala resumes at WTO ‘ready to go’

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New Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala poses between WTO Deputy Directors-General Alan Wolff (L) and Karl Brauner upon her arrival at the WTO headquarters to take an office in Geneva, Switzerland March 1, 2021. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) first female and first African director-general, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala began work on Monday, ending a six-month leadership void by vowing to unblock negotiations on rules to stop over-fishing.

After a long campaign that was derailed in the latter stages by a Trump administration veto, the 66-year-old Nigerian was confirmed as boss last month, pledging to “forget business as usual” at the body which is struggling to strike new deals and whose arbitration functions are paralysed.

“It feels great. I am coming into one of the most important institutions in the world and we have a lot of work to do. I feel ready to go,” Okonjo-Iweala told a reporter on arrival at the WTO’s lakeside Geneva headquarters.

Nigeria’s former finance and foreign minister’s first day at the helm of the WTO coincides with a meeting of its top decision-making body, the General Council. Its 164 member states will discuss topics such as trade rules on COVID-19 vaccine distribution which Okonjo-Iweala has identified as a priority.

New Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks as she stands between WTO Deputy Directors-General Alan Wolff (L) and Karl Brauner upon her arrival at the WTO headquarters to take an office in Geneva, Switzerland March 1, 2021. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS

Also on the agenda is the date and venue for its major ministerial conference which was due to be held in Kazakhstan last year but was delayed by the pandemic.

Okonjo-Iweala said she was hopeful of clinching a deal on cutting fisheries subsidies this year after 20 years of talks.

“Things are not easy when members are negotiating and there are still a lot of critical issues that need to be sorted out. But we are hopeful,” she said, speaking next to an ice statue of fish erected by environmental groups outside the WTO.

Her predecessor, Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, stepped down on Aug. 31, a year early.

Since the director-general role holds few executive powers, some analysts question Okonjo-Iweala’s ability to revive the body in the face of so many challenges including persistent U.S.-China trade tensions and growing protectionism heightened by the pandemic.