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WTO: Nigeria vows not to give up on Okonjo-Iweala

Ex-Minister: I remain positive despite hiccups
WTO DG race now hinges on U.S. election

The Federal Government, yesterday, restated its commitment towards ensuring that former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala, emerges as Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Okonjo-Iweala is at the verge of clinching the exalted position, having secured the support of nearly every economic and political bloc across the world. The United States is opposed to Okonjo- Iweala’s candidature.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a statement released yesterday in Abuja, confirmed that Okonjo-Iweala had secure the support of majority of the member countries of the WTO, but was yet to be declared and returned the winner. Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ferdinand Nwonye, disclosed that the third and final round of the selection process of the Director- General of WTO was concluded on Tuesday, 27th October and the result was formally announced on Wednesday, 28th October.

Nwonye said that Okonjo- Iweala was yet to be declared winner in the race because apart from winning the election, all the 164 Member States of WTO were expected to adopt the winner by consensus, in accordance with the rule of procedure of the WTO. “It is important to highlight that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has secured cross-regional backing with only the United States opposing the consensus.

“The Ministry wishes to further inform that a meeting of the General Council of the WTO has been scheduled for November 9, 2020, for the final decision on the election process. “Nigeria will continue to engage relevant stakeholders to ensure that the lofty aspiration of her candidate to lead the WTO is realised,” Nwonye said.

Despite the opposition of the United States to her candidacy, Okonjo-Iweala has said she remains positive of becoming the first African and first female Director-General of the Organisation. Okonjo-Iweala, who stated this in a tweet yesterday, said she felt humbled to have been declared the candidate with the largest votes amongst the 164 Member States of the 25-year-old global trade organisation.

She stated: “Happy for the success and continued progress of our @wto DG bid. Very humbled to be declared the candidate with the largest, broadest support among members and most likely to attract consensus.

“We move on to the next step on November 9, despite hiccups. We’re keeping the positivity going!” The coast seemed to be clear for the former Nigerian finance minister to clinch the WTO top job on Wednesday after she received a key endorsement from the Organization’s selection committee, but the U.S. delegation opposed the move, saying it supported South Korean Trade Minister, Yoo Myung-hee. Analysts believe that despite the U.S.’ opposition, Okonjo-Iweala still stands a good chance of getting the job.

Meanwhile, WTO officials are confronting the reality that the future of the Geneva-based institution is now in the hands of the American electorate, following the Trump administration’s decision Wednesday to block the appointment of Dr. Okonjo- Iweala as the WTO’s next DG, Bloomberg reported yesterday.

The U.S. is backing South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee despite overwhelming support from other countries for Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s former finance minister who also holds U.S. citizenship. According to the news outlet, some officials are concluding that if President Donald Trump loses the presidential election November 3, as many polls are indicating, they should postpone the selection process until after Joe Biden is inaugurated on January 20. However, a Trump win would give U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, fresh momentum to re-engineer oversight of global trading rules.

The WTO has been his nemesis for years. Bloomberg quoted Rufus Yerxa, president of the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington and former WTO deputy director-general, as saying that: “The U.S. election is obviously pivotal now. Where the WTO General Council takes this depends on whether they’re in another brutal showdown with Lighthizer or can afford to wait him out and make a deal with a new Biden administration.”

Lighthizer issued a strong statement of support for Yoo, signalling no wiggle room in the American position. According to people close to Lighthizer, he views Okonjo-Iweala, a longtime top official at the World Bank, as being too ideologically aligned with internationalists like Robert Zoellick, a former USTR from the Bush administration who worked with her when he was president of the Washington-based bank.

“Minister Yoo is a bonafide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade-policy maker,” the USTR’s office said in a statement.

“The WTO is badly in need of major reform. It must be led by someone with real, handson experience in the field.” Molly Toomey, a spokeswoman for Okonjo-Iweala, responded by saying, “WTO members wouldn’t have selected a DG who is missing any skills or qualifications.” For WTO members, there are few desirable options if Trump emerges victorious in next week’s vote.

Most are unwilling to back Yoo, who decided not to withdraw from the race after the WTO’s selection panel named Okonjo- Iweala the candidate most likely to attract consensus support from the WTO’s members. Okonjo-Iweala “clearly carried the largest support by members” and “clearly enjoyed broad support from members from all levels of development and from all geographic regions,” WTO General Council Chairman, David Walker, who is from New Zealand, said in a statement on Wednesday.

It’s possible that members could force a resolution to the impasse by holding a vote to select the next WTO director-general by a qualified majority. Okonjo-Iweala would likely win such a vote, but that path would be unprecedented and harmful for the consensus-oriented WTO. WTO decisions are made by a consensus of its 164 members, which means a single country can stall to pressure others.

Wednesday’s setback came after Okonjo-Iweala secured the support of the European Union, Japan and much of Africa and Latin America. “The resolute global majority and that of the Council to propose Dr. Okonjo-Iweala to be the new DG of WTO speaks to the overwhelming global consensus in favour of her candidature,” Ebba Kalondo, spokesperson to African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki, said in a statement Thursday.

“We trust that this global consensus will prevail.” China said it supported the outcome of the WTO process and the EU reiterated its commitment to remain engaged. To avoid a prolonged stalemate, members will work until November 9 to try to reach a consensus. In a statement, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which advises President Trump on trade policy, said the WTO “must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”

The U.S prefers Myunghee, who is Okonjo-Iweala’s opponent in the race. The U.S. believes Myunghee is better suited for the job as “a bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself over a 25- year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policymaker.” According to the USTR, the Korean trade minister has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organisation.

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