Africa: Okonjo-Iweala Named One of Two Women Finalists to Lead the World Trade Organization

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Chairperson of the African Risk Capacity Agency Governing Board, at the AfDB Annual Meetings in Busan, South Korea, May 2018.
7 October 2020

Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala along with South Korea's Yoo Myung-hee are widely reported to have been selected as the finalists in the contest to lead the World Trade Organization . The two edged out three other candidates, including Kenya's Amina Mohamed.

"By advancing two women to the final round of the selection process, the WTO will likely have the first female director general in its 25-year history," Bloomberg reported late Wednesday. A formal announcement is expected on October 8.

Okonjo-Iweala served as finance minister under Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo (2003-2006) and Goodluck Jonathan (2011-2015). She also served briefly as Obasanjo's foreign minister. In between those tours, she was managing director at the World Bank, where she worked for 25 years.

The contest pitted two powerhouse women from east and west Africa. Mohamed, who currently Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Heritage & Culture, is a former foreign secretary who also headed three other ministries.

"Mohamed has run as a WTO insider who knew how to get things done, pointing to her experience as chair of the WTO ministerial conference in Nairobi in 2015," Doug Palmer and Gavin Bade wrote in the PoliticoPro newsletter. She also previously served as Kenya's ambassador to the WTO. But others have raised doubts about her organizational skills."

Opponents of the former Nigerian minister pointed to allegations that $20 million went missing from the oil fund while she was in office. But she has continued to build a global profile since leaving office and currently sits on the Boards of Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), and African Risk Capacity,  a specialized agency of the African Union.

Just prior to the WTO decision meeting Mohamed won endorsement from the East African Community, which includes six countries in that region. Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo Myung-hee were backed by the European Union. The United States did not announce support for any candidate, although Okonjo-Iweala is believed to have backers in the Trump administration

"WTO reform will be tough - but I've delivered hard reform before, including reform of countries' trade regimes," Okonjo-Iweala said in a Tweet the day before this phase ended. "In addition to this, I'm the only candidate working at the intersection of trade and public health."

In Kenya, the WTO choice was met with disappointment. "Kenya needs soul-searching about its IMPOTENCE in senior international jobs," Kenya-American scholar Makau Mutua Tweeted after news of the decision leaked on Wednesday. "My friend @AMB_A_Mohammed  — one of the strongest candidates for SG of @wto  — once AGAIN fell victim to this weakness," write Mutua, professor and former dean at  SUNY Buffalo Law School, who chairs the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

The final phase of selection is scheduled to conclude on November 6, with the new director general of the Geneva-based international trade body taking office in December.

"Clouding the outlook for the selection process is the U.S. presidential election Nov. 3," according to the Bloomberg story. "The WTO makes decisions on a consensus basis, and a lack of American support for any of the finalists could mean delays in picking the new director-general."

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