Nigerian Okonjo-Iweala’s Path to WTO Clears with Biden’s approval – Korean challenger also quits race

By Amos Fofung

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is tipped to run the affairs of the global trade body
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is tipped to run the affairs of the global trade body

All is now set for Nigerian-born Okonjo-Iweala to become the female leader of the World Trade Organization after receiving the support of US President Joe Biden and the surprising backing down of her only challenger.

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee ended her campaign to lead the World Trade Organization, leaving the former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the likely candidate for the job and setting up a key decision by WTO members to approve her appointment.

Yoo, Bloomberg reports, decided after discussions with the U.S. and other major nations, and took various issues into account including the need to revitalize the multilateral organization, according to a statement from Korea’s trade ministry on Friday.

President Biden on Friday threw his weight behind the former Nigerian Finance minister’s candidacy to become the next Director General of WTO, and the first woman to lead the trade organization.

In October, former President Trump threw a wrench into Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy by supporting a competing candidate, South Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee.

Because the WTO makes decisions by consensus, the U.S. decision to support another candidate delayed action, despite broad support among the organization’s 164 members.

The position has remained open — run by four deputies — since Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo stepped down in August. Trump’s decision further delayed the WTO from filling the position as expected in its November meeting.

On Friday, following discussions with the U.S., Yoo withdrew her candidacy, after which the Biden administration expressed “strong support” for Okonjo-Iweala.

“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister…she is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership,” the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) said in a statement.

With the recent developments, there is joy within trade-ranks across Africa which has being very supportive of the Nigerian-born Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as she seeks to break a 25-year deadlock, becoming the first ever woman to oversee global trade.

Yes, for the first time in its 25-year history, the World Trade Organization, WTO, will be led by a woman, replacing Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down a year earlier than planned in August after the WTO was caught in the middle of an escalating trade fight between the United States and China.

Okonjo-Iweala is an economist and former finance minister of Nigeria. She spent 25 years at the World Bank, rising to become the organization’s managing director of operations. In 2018, she was named to the board of social media giant, Twitter. She also chairs the board of Gavi, an international organization that aims to bring together the public and private sectors to improve access to vaccines.

As next director general of the WTO, she will assume control of an organization that has struggled to prevent trade spats among member states, most notably the United States and China. She will also be forced to grapple with fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which slammed trade and triggered a deep global recession.

Okonjo-Iweala, who hails from one of the few parts of the world where free trade is ascendent, told CNN in August 2020 that trade would play an important role in the recovery from coronavirus.

Haven put in decades into global finance, business, trade and economy, there is no gainsaying to the fact that Okonjo-Iweala masters the art of negotiating trade deals and will do a great job administering rules for international trade, resolving disputes, and setting standards among the organizations 164 members.

In a separate interview, Okonjo-Iweala is quoted to have said “…It’s true I am not a WTO insider but that’s a good thing. We need someone who knows trade but brings a fresh pair of eyes.

“There are a lot of people with technical skills at the WTO. There is no shortage of trade skills, but the problems are there, and they are getting worse. Something else is needed, strong political skills, someone able to engage leaders in a substantive way.”

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