Okonjo-Iweala: US rejection throws WTO leadership race into confusion

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and President Muhammadu Buhari at the Aso Villa on Monday
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and President Muhammadu Buhari have been making calls to allies as she eyes WTO DG

The World Trade Organization’s bid to select a new leader was plunged into uncertainty on Wednesday after the United States rejected Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next director-general.

Just six days before the US election in which trade is a hot topic, Washington struck another blow at the WTO, which US President Donald Trump has described as “horrible” and biased towards China.

Washington has already paralysed the WTO’s role as global arbiter on trade by blocking appointments to its appeals panel. Now it threatens to render it leaderless for weeks or months to come.

The WTO itself has called a meeting for November 9, less than a week after the presidential election, by which time it hopes to have secured full backing for Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Deal of the day

The decision needs to be approved by consensus, however, meaning any of the 164 WTO members could block her appointment.

Three WTO ambassadors, the “troika” charged with finding a successor to Brazilian Roberto Azevedo, had decided that the former Nigerian finance minister should be the next chief as she had secured wide cross-regional backing.

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US President Donald Trump rejected Okonjo-Iweala

“All of the delegations that expressed their views today expressed very strong support for the process, for the troika and for the outcome. Except for one,” WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters after the closed-door meeting, specifying that the one was the United States.

Washington continued to support South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee in the final round of a more than four-month selection process.

Rockwell said there was likely to be “frenzied activity” before the Nov. 9 meeting to secure the required consensus.

It was not immediately clear if the outcome of the U.S. vote would affect the U.S. position on Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment. By then, Trump may be heading a lame-duck administration.

Many members, including China and the United States, had declined to name their preference publicly before Wednesday although some African, Caribbean and other states had voiced support for Okonjo-Iweala. The European Union endorsed her on Oct. 26.

The leadership void was created after outgoing WTO chief Azevedo stepped down a year early in August. The WTO is currently being steered by four deputies.

Okonjo-Iweala, a 66-year-old former finance minister and World Bank managing director, would face considerable challenges with rival economies bickering amid rising tensions and protectionism during a coronavirus-induced trade plunge.

Okonjo-Iweala, a development expert, has branded herself a “do-er”, saying she has the political clout to command influence in capitals.

Currently chair of the of GAVI vaccine alliance board, Okonjo-Iweala has also said the WTO should play a role in helping poorer countries access COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.