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Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala closer to WTO top job as opponent drops bid


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Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala closer to WTO top job as opponent drops bid


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attends a press conference in Geneva on July 15, 2020. PHOTO | AFP

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Summary

  • Yoo had consulted with the United States — her prime backer — and other major countries and “decided to renounce her candidacy”, South Korea’s trade ministry said in a statement.

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the 66-year-old former Nigerian Finance minister, is set to become the director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as her sole opponent, US-favoured South Korean, Yoo Myung-hee, is reported to have withdrawn from the race.

Yoo, a trade minister, on Friday abandoned her bid to become head of the WTO, Seoul said, clearing the way for Dr Okonjo-Iweala to become the global body’s first woman and first African director-general.

Yoo had consulted with the United States — her prime backer — and other major countries and “decided to renounce her candidacy”, South Korea’s trade ministry said in a statement.

The process to name a successor to Roberto Azevedo had been deadlocked since October, when key WTO ambassadors tapped Okonjo-Iweala as the best pick to lead the organisation.

On October 28, WTO General Council chair, David Walker, announced that, after due consultations, Dr Okonjo-Iweala was “the candidate best poised to attain consensus and become the 7th director-general”.

Consensus

But the Trump administration maintained its opposition to her appointment. 

The WTO head is normally chosen by consensus, leaving the process at a standstill.

All the six past Director-Generals were selected by consensus but in 1999, the WTO could not choose between Dr Mike Moore of New Zealand and Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi of Thailand. 

Instead of voting to decide the winner, it took the unprecedented decision to split the term of office between the two, with Dr Moore serving from 1999 to 2002 and Dr Supachai from 2002 to 2005.

But the WTO regarded term-sharing as a precedent that shouldn’t be repeated, so it introduced a process of successive rounds of consultations to identify the candidate best placed to attract consensus.

Observers suggested that South Korea was under pressure from the United States — a security ally that stations 28,500 troops in the country to defend it from the nuclear-armed North — to keep Yoo in the race.

The WTO also announced later that a meeting to decide the next WTO boss had been postponed because of new Covid-19 restrictions in Geneva and “current events”, which may not have been unconnected to the US election.

Korea’s position

At the same time, Seoul faced anger from African countries and others for not bowing out.

“Korea is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” one Western trade diplomat told AFP at the time.

The South’s decision to withdraw her candidacy comes two weeks after Joe Biden was sworn in as the new US president.

“South Korea will continue to make various contributions to rebuild and enhance the multilateral trade system,” the trade ministry statement said.

The WTO is widely seen as being in need of reform — even before the Covid-19 crisis 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 the WTO dispute settlement appeal system and threatened to leave the organisation altogether.

Final two

The WTO was destined to have its first woman director-general after the months-long consultations process whittled the candidates down to the final two.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala arrived in the US in 1973 as a teenager and studied at Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude with an AB in Economics in 1976. She acquired her PhD in regional economics and development from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

She was Nigeria’s finance minister from 2003 to 2006 and from 2011 to 2015 under the leadership of presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan, respectively, and also served the country as its first woman foreign minister.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala 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.

She sits on the boards of Standard Chartered Bank. 

Similarly Yoo, 53, is known as a glass-ceiling-breaker in the South’s still male-dominated society.

An English literature graduate of the elite Seoul National University, she set aside her dreams of a literary career to become a trade ministry civil servant, later handling a number of free trade negotiations along the way.



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