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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman and first African to become director-general of the World Trade Organization, forged her strength through traumas few political leaders could imagine — let alone endure.

Driving the news: In a remarkable interview with "Axios on HBO" — her first extended, in-person TV interview since taking the job in March — the MIT-trained economist and development expert opened up about her nearly "impossible job" and the experiences that shaped her, including her mother's kidnapping.

The big picture: At the end of our hourlong conversation, Ngozi made a direct plea to President Biden and China's Xi Jinping: "Give the WTO a chance."

Why it matters: You'll hear a lot more about Ngozi in the years ahead. As she admits, she's taken on "almost an impossible job" of reviving the WTO. The institution, which governs the rules of international trade, is badly broken.

  • Because the organization operates on consensus, all 164 member countries — including the increasingly hostile U.S. and China — need to agree to major reforms.
  • The WTO hasn't concluded a successful round of trade negotiations in more than 20 years. But it's the only institutional obstacle to uncontrollable trade wars that could easily spiral into more dangerous hostilities.

Details: Ngozi has a resume unlike any of the six men who previously ran the WTO. She grew up during the Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s and her family fled government troops.

  • She moved to the United States as a teenager, studied at Harvard and got a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She's often referred to by colleagues as "Dr. Ngozi."
  • She rose through the ranks of the World Bank, had four children and then left behind a comfortable bureaucratic life in Washington, D.C., to return to Nigeria to serve twice as finance minister and as minister of foreign affairs.

Between the lines: Many rooted for her success. Others wanted to kill her. In 2012, criminals kidnapped her 83-year-old mother at gunpoint. When recalling this experience, her voice cracked.

  • They didn't ask for a cash ransom, instead demanding that Ngozi resign her post as finance minister on live television. She seriously considered resigning, but her father insisted she stay in her job and ultimately the kidnappers released her mother.

More highlights from the interview:

1. On the difficulty of her job: "Yes, it could be termed that, an impossible job. But I see the possibility to turn around an organization that can really do good for people, that can live up to its purpose, you know. So maybe I'm a masochist, you know, and I like challenges."

2. On China still claiming it's a "developing country" to get special treatment at the WTO: "When the organization was designed, I think there were some serious design faults. It was left to countries to describe themselves any way they wanted."

3. On America's slide toward protectionism under both Donald Trump and Joe Biden: "I would hope that all countries, China, the United States, would move away and not get into a protectionist mood because that was why this organization was created in the first place, to make rules of the game that would lead to more liberalization of trade."

4. On whether intellectual property waivers would be enough to solve the global vaccine distribution crisis: "No, no, no, no. I've been very clear. … I've said it's not enough."

Go deeper

Momentum builds to ban lawmakers from trading stocks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some progressive Democrats and MAGA Republicans are uniting on a proposal to ban sitting lawmakers from trading individual stocks, although it's unlikely that leadership will bring the bill up for a vote.

Why it matters: Members of Congress have great power to move stock prices, and great financial incentives to do so.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: The Weather Prediction Center said in a storm summary Monday that winter storm warnings are still in effect for portions of the Central Appalachians, Ohio Valley, interior Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, while portions of the Central Appalachians and coastal New England are under high wind warnings.

Colleyville Rabbi credits survival to active-shooter training

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, one of the people taken hostage in a synagogue outside Fort Worth on Saturday, said in an interview with CBS Monday that he initially took in the man because he thought he needed shelter.

The big picture: Cytron-Walker said he spoke to the hostage taker, identified by the FBI as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram, for several minutes and made him tea before Akram took the rabbi and three other people hostage during Shabbat services for around 11 hours in Colleyville, Texas.