After months of deadlocks, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has named Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its seventh director general.

Her historic appointment – she is both the first woman and first African to take on the top job – comes at a particularly tumultuous time for world trade, as the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked economic havoc, upending supply chains and disrupting demand for goods and services. But the challenges she has inherited as director general don’t end there. Upon taking office on March 1, she will need to tackle reform of the WTO dispute settlement system, an overhaul of its rulebook, and defuse tensions between member countries amid accusations of unfair advantages for large emerging economies such as China and India.

In an illustration of the extent to which the WTO has become a battleground for competing national interests, Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment itself very nearly didn’t happen, after the United States refused to back her despite her having garnered the support of all of the other 163 WTO members. In an October statement, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) threw its support behind Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee instead, saying that the WTO “must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field”.

“I was quite surprised when that came up,” says Okonjo-Iweala. Speaking at a press event to which GTR was invited, she adds: “There had been no indication previously that there was any problem with the US, and I had had two very good interviews with the authorities in the administration. But you know, that’s the way life works.”

On February 5, newly elected US President Joe Biden endorsed her candidacy, ending the stalemate and clearing Okonjo-Iweala’s path to the top of the WTO.

“Without the recent swift action by the Biden-Harris Administration to join the consensus of the membership on my candidacy, we would not be here today,” she says. “I am grateful to the US for the prompt action and strong expression of support.”

While the former Nigerian finance minister’s previous experience may not include trade negotiations, her time spent implementing a sweeping set of economic and political reforms in her home country – an experience about which she wrote a book titled Reforming the Unreformable – is likely more relevant to the WTO in its present state.

“If all the WTO needed were trade negotiation skills, all of its problems would already have been solved,” she says. “Geneva has no shortage of those skills, both within the Secretariat and among ambassadors. But the problems remain.”

She highlights the WTO’s dispute settlement system as one of the biggest and most pressing issues for her to tackle upon taking up her new role. The WTO’s appellate body has been without the quorum necessary to hear appeals since the US government blocked the appointment of new nominees in December 2019 – effectively cutting off its ability to resolve international trade disputes. “There’s no point agreeing on more rules where the only place in the world where countries can bring trade disputes is paralysed,” she says, adding that her priority will be to overhaul the system so that it works for all WTO members, with the aim of bringing a proposed set of reforms to the 12th Ministerial Conference, which will likely be held in June this year.

Next on her to-do list is bringing the WTO’s rules into the modern age. “The WTO rules are behind those of several regional and bilateral trade agreements which are incorporating a lot of innovations such as e-commerce and the digital economy,” she says, adding that the pandemic has heightened the importance and accelerated the role of e-commerce, which is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.

“E-commerce offers important opportunities for inclusivity of MSMEs and women in international trade, especially in developing countries,” she says. “To make it possible for some developing and least developed countries to participate in the e-commerce negotiations, we must partner with governments and other organisations to bridge the digital divide.”

Overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic is also front of mind for Okonjo-Iweala. She has pledged to push the WTO to play a “more forceful role” in exercising its monitoring function to tackle export restrictions and prohibitions that hinder supply chains for medical goods and equipment. She is also calling for a “third way” to broaden access through facilitating technology transfer within the framework of multilateral rules, so as to encourage research and innovation while at the same time allowing licensing agreements that help scale up manufacturing of medical products.

The challenges facing the WTO are both numerous and complex, and Okonjo-Iweala has a tough job ahead of her. Carrying out the wide-ranging reforms the organisation needs if it is to remain relevant will be particularly tricky, since the WTO agreement means that consensus from all members is required before any actions are carried out. However, in comments made to journalists on Monday, Okonjo-Iweala said that she intends to “ensure consensus does not stand in the way”. Where consensus isn’t possible, the WTO agreement does allow for voting, albeit in limited circumstances – potentially giving the global trade body’s seventh director general a viable way forward to force through the reforms that it so dearly needs.