Nigeria: Despite U.S. Opposition, Okonjo-Iweala in Pole Position to Emerge WTO Chief

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (file photo).
29 October 2020

The U.S. has insisted on South Korea's candidate for the WTO position.

Nigeria's candidate in the race for the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, is in a pole position to clinch the top job as the seventh head of the global trade group despite opposition from the world's largest economy, the U.S.

On November 9, the WTO General Council, which is the highest decision-making body of the WTO after the Ministerial Conference, is scheduled to ratify the report of the WTO DG selection panel (Troika), which overwhelmingly identified Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the candidate preferred by most of the members of the group to head the organisation.

Since Tuesday, local and international media have been awash with reports announcing Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the winner of the election.

Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director (Operations) of the World Bank, was reported to have emerged the preferred candidate for the WTO top office after reports emerged in Geneva that she garnered the overwhelming backing from the vast majority of WTO member-countries, including the European Union, Japan and China.

A source, who sits in the WTO General Council, told PREMIUM TIMES that the United States was the only strong opposition to Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's confirmation during the WTO Head of Delegation meeting held on Wednesday.

The meeting held in Geneva was convened for the sole purpose of allowing the Troika to present the results of the last round of consultations with member-countries in accordance with the Rules of Procedure of the selection process.

The source, who requested that his identity should not be disclosed as he was not authorised to speak on the issue, said the Troika presented Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the preferred candidate to succeed the outgoing Roberto Azevêdo.

On May 14, Mr Azevêdo, a Brazilian diplomat and the Executive Vice President and Director of Corporate Affairs at PepsiCo, announced his decision to step down as Director-General of the WTO on August 31, one year before his term would expire.

Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's presentation to the august body on Wednesday was based on the overwhelming support she secured from members in the last round of the DG-WTO selection process.

Consequently, she was presented as the candidate most likely to gain consensus as DG-WTO over her only remaining opponent and South Korea's former Minister of Trade, Yoo Myung-hee.

How Okonjo-Iweala emerged

During the WTO Head of Delegation meeting, PREMIUM TIMES learnt that although the United States' representative desperately attempted to capitalise on and fault the outcome of consultations, all other members present were unanimous in their insistence that the rules were transparent and strictly adhered to.

The U.S. representative at the WTO has insisted on South Korea's candidate as a contender in the election, saying Washington would not recognise Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the consensus candidate.

"The U.S. tried to fault the process and register its reservations over Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's emergence, but it was clear they were alone on this path.

"So, we are looking forward to the confirmation of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala's appointment as DG-WTO by WTO Members at the Special General Council Meeting scheduled for 9th, November," the source said.

Why US insists on Korean candidate

The Office of the US Trade Representative in a statement in Washington after the meeting stated why the U.S. government is supporting the Korean candidate rather than Mrs Okonjo-Iweala.

"The United States supports the selection of Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee as the next WTO Director-General. Minister Yoo is a bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker. She has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization," it said.

Washington noted the very difficult time WTO and international trade are facing at the moment, particularly the absence of "multi-system-lateral tariff negotiations in 25 years," with the dispute settlement mechanism out of control, and too few members fulfilling basic transparency obligations.

The U.S. government said it believes with all these challenges, the WTO is badly in need of major reforms, which could only be achieved with the leadership of someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.

Other members insist on Okonjo-Iweala

Regardless, other members of the group say although they shared the sentiments by the U.S. government about the current difficult environment in WTO, they still believe Mrs Okonjo-Iweala has what it takes, in terms of experience, to lead the organisation as the DG.

Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, a renowned global finance expert, is also an economist and international development professional with wide experience working in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America over the last 30 years.

As finance minister, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala established herself as a reformer, having led Nigeria through varying degree of reforms, particularly on macroeconomic, trade, financial and real sector issues.

With a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the position of managing director (operations), Mrs Okonjo-Iweala is believed to possess all the requisite experience to steer the affairs of the WTO at this time.

As managing director (operations) at the World Bank, her several portfolios included oversight responsibility for the Bank's $81 billion operational portfolios in Africa, South Asia, Europe and Central Asia.

She spearheaded several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries during the 2008-2009 food crisis and later in the trying period of the global financial crisis.

She is currently the Chair of the Board of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance; a member of the Boards of Standard Chartered PLC and Twitter Inc, and was recently appointed as African Union (AU) Special Envoy to mobilise International Financial Support in the fight against COVID-19, as well as Special Envoy for the World Health Organization's Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.

Sticking with precedence

All members, except the U.S., are hoping to follow the established practice of consensus in the WTO DG selection process to resolve the stalemate.

The source told PREMIUM TIMES that usually, once the results of the selection process are announced to the Heads of Delegation, as was done on Wednesday, the General Council Meeting would be convened at a later date to ratify the decision and give a seal of confirmation for the appointment of the DG by consensus.

During such a meeting, where members fail to reach a final consensus, the source said the rule is that the Council would fall back to voting to select the ultimate winner.

The meeting of the WTO General Council has already been scheduled for November 9 to conduct the standard procedural business of ratifying the decision presented by the WTO Troika.

With the majority of the members in support of the Troika's recommendation of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the next DG and the first woman to head the world trade body in its 25-year history, the source said it would take a veto by the U.S. to force an election.

On the possibility of a formal U.S. veto, the source said it would be difficult to achieve at this time after what went into the consultations to build a consensus on Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's candidacy.

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