Nigerian Candidate Closes in on WTO Top Job After Rival Withdraws


SEOUL/GENEVA – Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a step closer to becoming the first African and first woman to lead the World Trade Organization, after a South Korean rival withdrew on Friday following months of uncertainty over the body’s leadership.

Okonjo-Iweala faced opposition from the U.S. administration of former President Donald Trump after a WTO selection panel recommended her as chief in October. The decision required consensus.

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South Korea’s trade minister Yoo Myung-hee’s withdrawal clears the way for Okonjo-Iweala to be director-general of the global trade watchdog. Okonjo-Iweala said she was looking forward to the conclusion of the race.

“There is vital work ahead to do together,” the former finance minister and World Bank executive said in a statement, saying she wanted to focus on needed reforms.

The embattled Geneva-based body has gone without a director-general since Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo quit a year early in August and his replacement must contend with a COVID-induced recession, U.S.-China tensions and rising protectionism.

In the more than three months since the selection panel recommended Okonjo-Iweala, Yoo had resisted mounting diplomatic pressure to bow out, until Friday.

“In order to promote the functions of WTO and in consideration of various factors, I have decided to withdraw my candidacy,” Yoo said in a statement.

Yoo, who was a finalist selected from among eight candidates to lead the body, said her decision was made after consulting with allies including the United States.

Waiting for Washington

Observers say the leaderless WTO is facing the deepest crisis in its 25-year history. It has not clinched a major multilateral trade deal in years and failed to hit a 2020 deadline on ending subsidies for overfishing.

Some of its functions are paralyzed due to the actions of the Trump administration which blocked judge appointments to its top appeals body.

Many hope that the change of U.S. administration will lead to reform of the organization.

However, Washington under President Joe Biden has not yet publicly said who it is supporting as the next head although it is considering the question.

It also said that it is committed to “positive, constructive and active engagement” on reforming the body.

Okonjo-Iweala has previously stressed the need for the WTO to play a role in helping poorer countries with COVID-19 drugs and vaccines — an issue on which members have failed to agree in ongoing negotiations.

The WTO could in theory call a meeting of its 164 members to confirm the next chief at short notice.

However, some delegates saw that as unlikely given that Biden’s choice of trade representative, Katherine Tai, has not yet been sworn in. Nor has a Geneva-based deputy been selected.

The International Chamber of Commerce’s John Denton urged WTO members to act quickly.

“With geopolitical tensions high, the global economy in recession and ‘vaccine nationalism’ threatening an equitable recovery, there is now no reason for further delay in filling this critical role with the well-qualified candidate at the ready,” he said.

Former U.S. government officials, diplomats and academics also wrote a letter to Biden on Jan. 19 asking him to support Okonjo-Iweala.

If she does get the nod, Okonjo-Iweala will certainly have her work cut out for her as the first woman and also first African to lead the WTO.

The crisis-wracked organization is widely seen as being in need of reform.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it had grappled with stalled trade talks and struggled to curb tensions between the United States and China.

The global trade body has also faced relentless attacks from Washington, which has crippled its dispute settlement appeal system and, under Trump, had threatened to leave the organization altogether.

Twice Nigeria’s finance minister and its first woman foreign minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, 66, trained as a development economist — she has degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard.

She spent a quarter of a century at the World Bank, rising to be managing director and running for the top role in 2012, and is seen as a trailblazer in her home country.

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