Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been appointed the first female and first African head of the World Trade Organization, at a special general meeting today. 

"WTO members have just agreed to appoint Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next director-general," the global trade body said in a statement.

The former Nigerian finance minister and World Bank veteran will take up her post on March 1, it added.

Three months after the Trump administration rejected her, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala received unanimous backing today to become the first woman and first African director-general of the World Trade Organization. 

The new WTO chief is a self-declared "doer" with a track record of taking on seemingly intractable problems.

But Okonjo-Iweala will have her workcut out for her at the trade body, even with Donald Trump, who had threatened to pull the US out of the organisation, no longer in the White House.  

As director-general, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, will need to broker international trade talks in the face of persistent US-China conflict; respond to pressure to reform trade rules and counter protectionism heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A 25-year veteran of the World Bank, where she oversaw an $81 billion portfolio, Okonjo-Iweala ran against seven other candidates by espousing a belief in trade's ability to lift people out of poverty. 

She studied development economics at Harvard after experiencing civil war in Nigeria as a teenager. 

She returned to the country in 2003 to serve as finance minister .

Backers pointed to her hard-nose negotiating skills that helped seal a deal to cancel billions of dollars of Nigerian debt with the Paris Club of creditor nations in 2005. 

"She brings stature, she brings experience, a network and a temperament of trying to get things done, which is quite a welcome lot in my view," former WTO chief Pascal Lamy told Reuters. 

"I think she's a good choice. Key to her success will be her ability to operate in the centre of a "US-EU-China triangle", he said. 

The endorsement of the Biden administration cleared the last obstacle to her appointment. 

Okonjo-Iweala becomes one of the few female heads of a major multilateral body. She is expected to join the WTO's Geneva lakeside headquarters within weeks where her portrait is set to be hung beside others of men, mostly white and from rich countries. 

Her bright Nigerian prints are sure to stand out among the suits there where the majority of top staff are also men, like most of the delegates and ministers that walk its corridors. 

The Trump administration's main criticism of her was that she lacked direct trade experience compared to her main South Korean rival and even supporters say she will have to quickly get up to speed on the technicalities of trade negotiations. 

She has rejected this, saying that she has plenty of experience of trade plus other expertise. 

Raised by academics, the mother-of-four earned a reputation for hard work and modesty amid the pomp of Nigeria's governing class, acquaintances say. 

"She is persistent and stubborn," said Kingsley Moghalu, former deputy governor of Nigeria's central bank who worked with her when she was the country's first female finance minister. 

Even when her elderly mother was kidnapped in the Niger Delta, she refused to back down on a series of oil reforms. 

"People recognise that this is not someone who is going to tolerate nonsense," her son Uzodinma Iweala, a writer, told Reuters. 

The 26-year-old WTO that Okonjo-Iweala inherits after a six-month leadership gap is partially paralysed, thanks to the Trump administration which blocked appointments to its top appeals body that acts as the global arbiter of trade disputes. 

But even before Trump, negotiators had struggled to clinch deals that must be agreed by consensus, with the US and other developed WTO members arguing that developing counties, notably China, cannot cling on to exceptions and tha trules need to change to reflect China's economic growth. 

Okonjo-Iweala who is a special envoy for the World Health Organization on Covid-19 and, until recently chair of the board of global vaccine alliance Gavi, told Reuters that trade's contribution to public health would be a priority. 

The WTO currently faces deadlock over an issue of waiving intellectual property rights for Covid-19 drugs, with many wealthy countries opposed. 

High on the to-do list will also be fisheries subsidies, the subject of the WTO's main multilateral talks that missed a deadline to conclude by end-2020. 

Asked about the challenges ahead, she joked that a book she wrote about fixing Nigeria's broken institutions could well apply to today's WTO: 'Reforming the Unreformable'.

"I feel I can solve the problems. I'm a known reformer, not someone who talks about it," she said. "I've actually done it".

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Leo Varadkar has welcomed today's appointment of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the new Director-General of the World Trade Organisation.

Leo Varadkar said that Ireland and the EU supported Dr Ngozi during the selection process and her appointment. 

"As a small island economy at the heart of Europe, we owe our economic development to the free flow of trade and investment. This trade is possible thanks to international rules that are fair, enforceable, and fit for the future," Mr Varadkar said. 

"At a time when many countries are looking inwards, Dr Ngozi and the WTO will be crucial in reinvigorating the global trading system," he added.

He said that Ireland and the EU look forward to working with Dr Ngozi to re-assert the important role of the WTO.