US backs Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala to lead World Trade Organization

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Nigeria’s former finance minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala looks set to become the first woman to lead the World Trade Organization after the Biden administration gave her the green light. Her only rival, South Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, withdrew her candidacy last Thursday.

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, will become the first woman and first African to take up the post of director general of the WTO.

The race for the top job was frozen on 6 November 2020 when President Donald Trump insisted he would veto her candidacy in favour of Yoo.

But on 5 February the Biden administration declared its "strong support" for Okonjo-Iweala to serve as the WTO's next director-general. She already had the backing of over 70 percent of WTO members.

Shift in Nigeria-US relations

Okonjo-Iweala is a Harvard-educated development economist who spent 25 years at the World Bank where she rose to managing director. She worked as Nigerian finance minister under both Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan when she introduced a reformist agenda and worked hard to crack down on corruption.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who nominated her as candidate for director-general of the WTO in June 2020, said: "We welcome the decision of the new US administration to remove the last obstacle in the path of Dr Okonjo-Iweala to becoming the first female and the first person of African descent to lead the organisation."

The new US position, he said, signified “a shift and an important turnaround in the relations between our continent and the United States under the Biden administration”.

The WTO administrators had been due to meet in March over the election. But after Yoo’s withdrawal, Okonjo-Iweala could take over much sooner.

Reforming the WTO

“The WTO must turn its focus to the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic recovery,” her spokeswoman Molly Toomey told The Africa Report. “Dr Okonjo-Iweala is eager to focus on the many needed reforms at the WTO. She is humbled by the support she has received from WTO members and champions in Nigeria and other parts of the world.”

Last October Okonjo-Iweala suggested one of her priorities was to rebuild the WTO Appellate Body which solves trade disputes and which was torpedoed by the Trump administration.

She will also encourage women.

In her job application she said the WTO “should also be responsive to the challenge of facilitating the greater participation of women in international trade, particularly in developing countries, where greater efforts should be made to include women owned enterprises in the formal sector".