Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala quits WTO top job after South Korean rival withdraws

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is one step closer to becoming the first African and first woman to lead the World Trade Organization, after a South Korean rival withdrew on Friday after months of uncertainty over the body’s leadership.

Okonjo-Iweala met with opposition from the US administration of former President Donald Trump after a WTO selection panel recommended her as chief in October. The decision required unanimity.

The withdrawal of South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee enables Okonjo-Iweala to become Director-General of the Global Trade Guards. Okonjo-Iweala said she was looking forward to the end of the race.

“There is important work to be done together,” the former finance minister and World Bank chief said in a statement, saying she wanted to focus on necessary reforms.

The vulnerable Geneva-based body has gone without a director general since Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo left a year early in August and his replacement has to contend with a Covid-induced recession, US-China tensions and growing protectionism.

In the more than three months since the selection panel recommended Okonjo-Iweala, Yoo had resisted increasing diplomatic pressure to bow until Friday.

“In order to promote the functions of the WTO and taking into account various factors, I have decided to withdraw my candidacy,” Yoo said in a statement.

Yoo, who was a finalist chosen from among eight candidates to lead the body, said her decision was made after consultation with allies including the United States.

A pioneer

Twice Nigeria’s finance minister and its first female foreign minister, Okonjo-Iweala, have been pioneers.

Now the 66-year-old wants to break another obstacle when she offers to become the first African and woman to lead the WTO.

Apart from his time as a public servant, the development economist had a quarter of a century at the World Bank – rose to become CEO and went to the top role in 2012.

Born in 1954 in Ogwashi Ukwu, Delta State, Western Nigeria, her father is a traditional ruler. She spent much of her life in the United States, graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, where she sent her four children.

Critics silence Nigerian corruption

But not everyone agrees that her story is impeccable.

“Okonjo-Iweala may have made some technical reforms of transparency in her ministry, but the fact is that nearly a billion dollars a month disappeared from oil revenues when she was finance minister,” says Sarah Chayes, author of “Thieves of State”, a book about corruption.

“I think it’s a shame that she’s even considered for the role,” says Chayes.

“There is an appetite for this kind of good news at a time when diversity issues are paramount, that it is not bad to be a woman and black.”

The former minister has portrayed herself as a master against Nigeria’s nasty corruption – and says that her own mother was even kidnapped over her attempts to deal with the plague.

But critics insist she should have done more to stop it in power.

“At the very least, she was given the opportunity to resign and expose the corruption,” said Olanrewaju Suraju, of the Human and Environmental Development Agenda Campaign.

“Rather, she kept quiet and allowed high-level corruption under the regime, only to complain after she left office.”

Waiting for Washington

Leadership race comes Observers say the WTO is facing the deepest crisis in its 25-year history.

It has not reached a major multilateral trade agreement in several years and has failed to reach a deadline of 2020 to end subsidies for overfishing.

Some of its functions are paralyzed due to the actions of the Trump administration that blocked the appointment of judges to its highest appellate body.

Many hope that the change of US administration will lead to a reform of the organization.

However, Washington under President Joe Biden has not yet said publicly who it supports as the next boss, although it is considering the issue.

It also said it is committed to “positive, constructive and active commitment” to reform the body.

Okonjo-Iweala has previously stressed the need for the WTO to play a role in helping poorer countries with Covid-19 drugs and vaccines – an issue that members have not agreed on in ongoing negotiations.

In theory, the WTO could convene a meeting with its 164 members to confirm the next chief at short notice.

However, some delegates saw that this was unlikely given that Biden’s choice of trade representative, Katherine Tai, had not yet been sworn in. Nor has any Geneva – based deputy elected.

The International Chamber of Commerce, John Denton, called on WTO members to act quickly.

“With geopolitical tensions high, the global recession economy and ‘vaccinationalism’ threatening a fair recovery, there is now no reason for further delays in fulfilling this critical role with the well-qualified candidate ready,” he said.

Former US government officials, diplomats and academics also wrote a letter to Biden on January 19 asking him to support Okonjo-Iweala.

( Jowharwith AFP and REUTERS)