The quest of Nigeria’s former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to lead the World Trade Organisation (WTO) received a big boost yesterday with 79 of the 164 member countries officially endorsing her for the job.
The entire 55-member African Union formally endorsed her over her sole remaining opponent, Yoo Myung-hee of South Korea. 24 other Caribbean and Pacific states have also confirmed their official endorsement of Okonjo-Iweala.
Sources say Japan and China, who are keen about reforming WTO, see Okonjo-Iweala as the most capable for effecting the desired change. As a result, they are looking good to snub Myung-hee.
“I feel the wind behind my back,” she told a virtual press briefing yesterday after the AU announcement.
Okonjo-Iweala said she was thrilled to learn that “all African countries are getting behind me, vowing to champion reform.”
According to her, a group of Caribbean and Pacific states had also said they would back her, bringing the number of countries officially endorsing her candidacy to 79 out of the 164 states that comprise the WTO.
The former minister also said she felt “optimistic” about her support in Latin America, saying she felt she had gotten “very good traction and good support” in Asia so far.
“I feel quite confident that across the regions, we will be able to attract support”, Okonjo-Iweala added while hinting that the European Union was due to announce its preference of the last two candidates “soon”.
President Muhammadu Buhari had on Monday, assured Okonjo-Iweala, during her visit to Aso Villa in Abuja, that he would do all within his powers to ensure she got the job.
The global trade body is set to be led by a woman for the first time, whichever of the two candidates is successful in their bid to follow Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down as WTO director-general in August, a year ahead of schedule.
Okonjo-Iweala, 66, who served as Nigeria’s first female finance and foreign minister and has a 25-year career behind her as a development economist at the World Bank, said it would be good if WTO could also boast its first African leader.
“If that person is African and a woman, I think that is great. Because… neither an African nor a woman has led the organisation,” she said.
But at a time when the WTO is engulfed by multiple crises, she stressed that the new chief must above all be highly skilled in political and diplomatic negotiations, as well as at the managerial level.
“The WTO at this time, with the challenges it confronts, needs a very competent Director General who is able to have the political reach and stature to be able to do reforms and deal at very high levels.
“It is not only having those skills but having them all meet in one person at this juncture when the WTO needs that,” she said.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis hit, the WTO was already grappling with stalled trade talks and struggling to curb tensions between the United States and China.
The global trade body has also faced relentless attacks from Washington, which has crippled the WTO dispute settlement appeal system and threatened to leave the organisation altogether.
Okonjo-Iweala said she had broad experience in championing reform and was the right person to help put the WTO back on track.
“I am a reform candidate and I think the WTO needs the reform credentials and skills now.”
The initial pool of eight candidates for the WTO’s top post, which has been whittled down in two rounds of consultations, had included three Africans, and the AU had until now refrained from offering an official endorsement.
The third and final round of consultations seeking to establish consensus around one candidate is due to begin next week and end on October 27, with the announcement due in early November.
The General Council Chair, David Walker of New Zealand and his co-facilitators in the selection process stated that Okonjo-Iweala and Yoo Myung-hee “secured the broadest and deepest support from the membership” and that they are of “outstanding qualifications.”
He emphasised that the ultimate objective of the selection process was to secure a consensus decision by members on the next director-general.
“Our aim continues to be to encourage and facilitate the building of consensus among members, and to assist in moving from this final slate of two candidates to a decision on appointment. As this is the final round of the consultation process, it should bring us to the point where we can make a recommendation to the General Council concerning that decision,” Walker said.
Okonjo-Iweala is also chair at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.
Myung-hee is South Korea’s trade minister. During her 25-year career in government, she helped to expand her country’s trade network through bilateral accords with the United States, China and the United Kingdom.