US blocking selection of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be next head of WTO

Larry Elliott Economics editor
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: STAFF/Reuters</span>
Photograph: STAFF/Reuters

The US is blocking the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next head of the World Trade Organisation despite the former Nigerian finance minister winning the overwhelming backing of the WTO’s 164 members, it has emerged.

Ngozi had moved a step closer to becoming the first woman and the first African to be director of the global trade watchdog after securing the support of a key group of trade ambassadors in Geneva. Soundings taken by a selection panel of three WTO trade ministers found Okonjo-Iweala had far more support than her South Korean rival, Yoo Myung-hee.

Sources said Ngozi was backed by countries in the Caribbean, Africa, the European Union, China, Japan and Australia.

However, her candidacy failed to win the support of Washington, which raised last-minute objections to the process by which the new director general was being picked. An original list of eight candidates, which included the UK’s Liam Fox, has been whittled down to a final two since the summer.

By tradition, the WTO chooses its director general by consensus, with all 164 members having to approve a candidate. The US has been unhappy with the way the WTO has operated for some time, objecting to China’s designation as a developing country and blocking the appointment of new judges to the organisation’s appeals body.

Sources said it was unclear whether Washington’s opposition to Ngozi was a deliberate attempt to sabotage an organisation much criticised by Donald Trump.

A WTO spokesman said her candidacy would be put to a meeting of the body’s governing general council on 9 November, adding that there was likely to be “frenzied activity” in the meantime to secure consensus.

In the event that Washington maintains that it will not support Ngozi, the WTO’s constitution does eventually provide for a vote, although every previous director general in the organisation’s 25-year history has been appointed by consensus and trade experts said life would be difficult if an appointment was made against the wishes of the US.

Sources in Geneva said it was possible the US position may be affected by the result of next week’s presidential election, which Joe Biden is currently expected to win.

A spokesperson for Ngozi said: “Dr Ngozi is immensely humbled to receive the backing of the WTO’s selection committee today.

“Dr Ngozi looks forward to to the general council on 9 November when the committee will recommend her appointment as director-general. A swift conclusion to the process will allow members to begin work together, on the urgent challenges and priorities.”