WTO: Pathway for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the Director-General

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Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s entry into the contest to occupy the prestigious position of Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) significantly increased the prospect that the leadership of the WTO could go to Africa.

The race began for her when President Muhammadu Buhari decided to substitute Mr. Yonov Frederick Agah with her as Nigeria´s candidate. The President´s decision was a classical case of stirring the hornet’s nest, owing to the events that followed his announcement, which raised doubts about whether the rest of Africa will rally behind Nigeria’s candidacy.

Her nomination seemed to ruffle a lot of feathers within Africa in that on the one hand, many African trade officials criticised that her expertise lied more in finance than trade, and on the other hand, Egypt, another African powerhouse that had eyes for the position, was crying foul over her nomination, which it claimed came after the deadline for submission of nominees for African countries and infringed on the African Union nomination process.

However, despite the opposition from Egypt, the WTO, in a tweet post, acknowledged the nomination of Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as one of the candidates, in line with its rules which allow for direct nominations from a country without any regional endorsement, and like an unstoppable force, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has continued to surmount all challenges and come out in pole position in the race. 

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is a world-renowned economist and international development expert who has had a 25 year career at the World Bank in Washington DC as a development economist, and scaled the ranks to the position of Managing Director, Operations, to become one of very few women to hold the position.

She battled corruption as Nigeria’s two-time Finance Minister during which she led Nigeria’s negotiations within the ECOWAS and with the Paris Club of Creditors that realised a wipe out of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt.

She is a well-known policymaker who believes that a reform of the Trade Body’s dispute settlement system and an update of its rulebook to address the economic and technological developments of the 21st century, are priorities that the WTO’s next leader must set.

The race to who becomes the next Director-General of the World Trade Organization formally commenced with a nomination period that began with a first phase on June 8 and continued to a second phase which ended on September 7, and on to the third phase.

As the second phase of the WTO’s selection process kicked off and candidates began their campaigns, the Nigerian government inaugurated a formidable Campaign Strategy Team, led by the Minister of State, Ministry of Industry, Trade & Investment (FMITI), Amb. Mariam Katagum, to drive the campaign for the candidacy of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

Given Okonjo-Iweala’s antecedents and accomplishments in over more than three decades in leadership positions in government and at the World Bank, including her recent record with the Global Vaccine Alliance project, she is eminently qualified for the position, and campaigning for her candidacy was an easy sail.

At the inauguration of the Campaign Team, Amb. Mariam Katagum expressed optimism and confidence that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would emerge the next WTO boss, and it was no surprise that by the third and final stage when the field of eight initial candidates was narrowed down to five, and finally to two candidates, Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was still in the race.

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea emerged as the final contenders who subsequently, advanced to the final round of the selection process.

As the race reached its conclusive stage, Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala with endorsements from the European Union, the African Union, the Caribbean and Pacific States, Australia, Japan and China, but not the United States, won a broader backing of 163 out of 164 Member States.

The WTO’s effort to select its first female leader hence suffered a new setback with the United State’s lone resistance to the majority-backed Okonjo-Iweala. Encumbered with a veto from the US, the WTO was faced with two options for selecting its next leader: override its most important member and biggest paymaster with a vote or hope for a change of US President and wait until he takes charge.

Judging by the play out of events that have seen the postponement of the WTO’s special meeting called to override the US veto, it is obvious that the Trade Body has gone with the latter option of securing the incoming Biden administration’s backing for Okonjo-Iweala after he assumes office in January and not antagonise its most important member.

It is strongly believed that the Biden administration, whose body language depicts a sincere commitment to multilateralism, could revive the trade body by reversing the US veto on Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala and undoing the impasse engineered by the Trump administration with the blocking of appointment of judges to the appellate body of the WTO, preventing the hearing of appeals on global trade disputes.

Dr. Okonjo-Iweala possesses negotiating skills that would be vital to repair the multilateral agenda and bring competing interests together at the World Trade Organisation. She is unquestionably, the candidate that the Trade Body needs to steer those reforms and negotiations that will boost the institution’s reputation as well as give the institution a fresh political momentum.

When she secures the position of the next Director-General, it will make her the first female WTO chief and the first WTO chief from Africa in the institution’s 25-year history.

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