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WTO: Okonjo-Iweala set to emerge DG despite U.S. opposition

Ex-minister secures 110 votes against opponent’s 54
Organisation: She’s candidate with best chance

Nigeria’s former Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo- Iweala, is set to be named as the next head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) after she received a key endorsement from the Organization’s selection committee yesterday. Although the appointment requires consensus, and the United States,which is backing the candidate from South Korea, Yoo Myung-hee, remains opposed, the WTO said last night that Dr. Okonjo- Iweala has the best chance of getting a consensus.

In a tweet by the organization after the meeting, WTO spokesperson, Keith Rockwell, summed up the announcement by GC Chair Walker: “The candidate that had the best chance of attaining a consensus of the membership is Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria. Consultations on the way forward will start immediately.” Rockwell had earlier told reporters that the selection committee made up of ambassadors heading the WTO’s three key branches decided, after consultations with member states, that Okonjo-Iweala was the most likely to command the consensus from the organization’s 164 members, needed to take the top job.

The ambassadors, led by New Zealand’s Ambassador David Walker, concluded a third round of consultations on Tuesday. However, as Rockwell emphasized, the final decision on who heads the WTO, “can only be taken by the General Council.”

WTO officials said members decided to continue with the ongoing process which will lead to Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s announcement as the next Director- General of the organization on November 9, despite the opposition of the United States which they described as unjustified. Noting that the U.S. objection is anchored on procedural grounds, the officials, however, disclosed that constituents from across the regions who took the floor, stressed that this cannot stand because the process was unanimously agreed on and that it would be wrong to change it midway. The speakers included representatives of member countries from Africa, Caribbean, Asia, Latin America and other regions reflecting the breadth of her support.

They pointed out that Okonjo-Iweala got 110 votes against 54 obtained by her opponent, Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea. These WTO member countries insist that Okonjo- Iweala is the better qualified and properly elected candidate for the position of DG of the Organization.

The recommendation by the WTO’s key ambassadors helps Okonjo-Iweala clear one of the final hurdles in a complex and lengthy process aimed at naming the next leader of the WTO during the most turbulent period of its 25- year existence. The candidacy of the nation’s former Finance Minister had received a huge boost on Monday when the 27-member states of the European Union backed her for the job. She has also won the support of the 55-member African Union as well as the endorsement of a group of Caribbean, Pacific and Asian nations. According to analysts, her endorsement by key WTO ambassadors marks an important step paving the way for Okonjo-Iweala to become the first woman and the first African to head the organization.

The global trade body is thus set to be led by a woman for the first time whichever of the two final candidates succeeds in their bid to follow Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down as WTO director-general in August a year ahead of schedule.

Okonjo-Iweala, who was nominated as candidate for the WTO top job, by President Muhammadu Buhari as Nigeria’s substitution/ replacement of Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah, twice served as the country’ finance minister and has experience working at international governance bodies as a former managing director of the World Bank and as a chair at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

Okonjo-Iweala campaigned as a WTO outsider and a reformer who said she plans to bring a “fresh set of eyes” to a deeply dysfunctional organization. “I’m known as a strong reformer,” she told Bloomberg in an interview.

“My whole career at the World Bank has been involved with reforms in countries that have been beneficial.” The WTO has struggled to reform in the midst of the pandemic and a trade war between the world’s two biggest economies, the U.S. and China. Even before the COVID- 19 crisis hit, the WTO was already grappling with stalled trade talks and struggling to curb tensions between the United States and China.

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