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Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala set for WTO leadership after South Korea’s Yoo quits

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Friday, 5 February 2021 20:40, updated on Saturday, 6 February 2021 16:01

Okonjo-Iweala poses outside a Nigerian diplomatic residence in Chambesy
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala poses outside a Nigerian diplomatic residence in Chambesy, near Geneva, Switzerland, September 29, 2020. REUTERS/Emma Farge

Nigeria’s former Finance Minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is the last woman standing in the race to become the  new Director-General of the World Trade Organisation after South Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee withdrew on 5 February.

The race for the job has been frozen since 6 November when it emerged that Okonjo-Iweala had support from over 70% of the WTO members but President Donald Trump’s government insisted it would veto her candidacy and back Minister Yoo instead.

At that point, the WTO administrators suspended the election process indefinitely. Diplomats in Geneva said that decision was to see whether the US would change its position if Trump lost the presidential election that month.

On 6 February, Okonjo-Iweala tweeted that she looked forward to formalising her accession, suggesting that things may now be moving fast.

With Joe Biden’s victory in the US Presidential election, it looks certain that Washington will recognise Okonjo-Iweala’s victory in the WTO race. News reports from South Korea on 5 February say that Yoo’s decision to withdraw was made in “close consultation with the United States”.

READ MORE US holds up Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala appointment as WTO Director-General

Molly Toomey, spokesperson for Dr Okonjo-Iweala tells The Africa Report: “Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala congratulates Yoo Myung-hee on her long campaign and welcomes South Korea’s commitment to rebuilding and enhancing multilateralism. There is vital work ahead to do together. She looks forward to the conclusion of the Director-General selection process.”

Will Okonjo-Iweala be confirmed?

The Biden administration is yet to confirm that it will back Okonjo-Iweala for the WTO leadership but Washington insiders says it is just a matter of time. In Biden’s first foreign policy speech on 4 February, he heralded the US’s return to multilateralism and cooperation with its allies (most of whom had voted for Okonjo-Iweala at the WTO).

If Biden does back Okonjo-Iweala it will be his third repudiation of Trump’s policies on multilateral organisations: first, Biden took the US back into the Paris Climate Accord, and then he rejoined the World Health Organization.

READ MORE Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala offers WTO global and local experience

Former senior US officials are urging Biden to support Okonjo-Iweala, who is believed to be tough enough to undertake the difficult job of unblocking the deadlock in the organisation over the ajudication of trade disputes and the appellate court system.

The former head of the WTO, Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo, stepped down a year before his mandate was due to end, frustrated the logjam in the organisation as the US and China were locked in disputes amid a mood of rising economic nationalism.

On paper, the WTO administrators had been due to meet in March on the election. But after Minister Yoo’s withdrawal, Okonjo-Iweala could take over much sooner than that.

READ MORE Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: “If we didn’t have the WTO we would have to invent it.”

Okonjo-Iweala is ready to hit the ground running: “The WTO must turn its focus to the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic recovery,” says her spokeswoman Molly Toomey. “Dr Okonjo-Iweala is eager to focus on the many needed reforms at the WTO. She is humbled by the support she has received from WTO members and champions in Nigeria and other parts of the world.”

What will her appointment mean for Nigeria and Africa?

Although the job is a difficult one, it is a great opportunity, particularly due to the synchronicity with the launching of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). This, if all goes to plan, will be the biggest geographical  trading bloc in the world.

As the leader of the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala can ensure that Africa is not left out of important discussions and policies, more important than ever now due to the economic downturn caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ MORE WTO: It’s time for an African to lead the World Trade Organization

As the youngest and fastest growing continent in the world, Africa’s population will be of critical importance to the international system over the coming decades, as its economies accelerate from their current low base. To have an African economist at the helm of global trade policy is a great strategic win for the continent.

Bottom line

As soon as the US formally drops its veto against Okonjo-Iweala’s role as the new Director- General the WTO, the really hard work will start: trying to rebuild a consensus around multilateral trade cooperation in an era of cut-throat economic nationalism.

Steeped in development economics and a reputation as a formidable negotiator, Okonjo-Iweala may be able to cut the necessary deals.

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