WTO: European Council Insists on Okonjo-Iweala as DG

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•Nigeria reaches out to US, others to clear bottlenecks

By Bennett Oghifo in Lagos and Adedayo Akinwale in Abuja

The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, yesterday reiterated Europe’s support for the bid of Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to become the next Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

On the same day, the Nigerian government announced that it was reaching out to the United States and other members of the WTO to clear all bottlenecks to the emergence of Okonjo-Iweala as DG.

The President of the European Council gave the re-assurance to ensure that the Nigerian candidate emerges DG during a video conference with President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday.

Buhari, who is leading Nigeria’s charge for Okonjo-Iweala to emerge the first black and female DG of the WTO, thanked the European Council for its support for Nigeria’s candidate.

According to the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina, “Also discussed during the conference were issues bordering on debt relief for Africa, EU-African relations and recharge of the Lake Chad, which has currently shrunk to less than one-third of its usual size, and throwing about 130 million people who depend on the Lake into dire straits. Recharge of the Lake Chad is an issue the Nigerian President had vigorously canvassed at diverse global fora in recent time.

“President Buhari expressed appreciation to Mr. Michel for expected positive developments on the issues.”
Okonjo-Iweala was poised to become WTO’s first female leader by consensus on Wednesday after gaining the support of most WTO member states. But her nomination was moved forward after the U.S voiced opposition to her appointment.

Dozens of governments swiftly spoke out against the U.S, saying Washington was trying to obstruct and weaken the global-trade regulator.

Okonjo-Iweala, who is also a U.S. citizen, is running against South Korea’s first female trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee, who Washington is backing.

WTO spokesman, Keith Rockwell said the organisation would go ahead with a meeting November 9 to pick a new leader. If necessary, as a last resort, a vote could be held to pick a leader although that would break the precedent of selecting the WTO chief by consensus.

He said consultations with the U.S and other members would continue. South Korea declined to withdraw Yoo’s candidacy.

Okonjo-Iweala won the votes on Tuesday by a wide margin, Rockwell said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the U.S was the first country to dial in, over a videoconference line, saying Okonjo-Iweala lacked the experience to do the job, according to a Western ambassador who was present.

The US complained that the WTO’s election rules were flawed because they did not allow governments to register a negative view of a particular candidate, the ambassador and another person briefed on the exchange said.

The American objection prompted an uproar from the delegates of more than two dozen governments and international organisations seated in the room, with European allies, China, Canada, Latin American and African states all rallying against the US.

An EU representative complained that if the U.S had issues with the process, it could and should have raised them far earlier.

Other countries with delegates in the chamber raised flags, including some that backed Yoo, to join the EU in its objections to the American objection.

Delegates accused the U.S. of trying to bully them and said that if the U.S. didn’t rescind its objections, they would force a vote next month on Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy.

“Given that it will come down to a vote, the likelihood of Nigeria winning is 99 per cent,” the ambassador said.

Okonjo-Iweala had pitched herself as a champion of developing countries. She touted her managerial experience and work as a former senior World Bank official and board chair of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation as ideal preparation to steer the WTO’s focus on the serious trade challenges of a global health crisis.

In a statement after the selection meeting on Wednesday, Okonjo-Iweala sounded a note of victory, saying she was “immensely humbled to receive the backing of the WTO’s selection committee today.

“A swift conclusion to the process will allow members to begin again to work together, on the urgent challenges and priorities,” she said.

The race for the job, in which eight candidates initially competed, was triggered when Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo said in May that he was stepping down a year early, partly to allow for new leadership ahead of important WTO meetings next year.

Nigeria Reaches Out to U.S, Others to Clear All Bottlenecks

The Nigerian government has announced that it was currently reaching out to the United States and other members of the World Trade Organisation to clear all bottlenecks to the emergence of Okonjo-Iweala as WTO’s DG.

The Minister of State for Industry, Trade and Investment, Ambassador Mariam Katagum, who doubles as the Chairperson of the Campaign Strategy Team for Okonjo-Iweala, disclosed this at an emergency virtual meeting that she convened yesterday.

Katagum and her team met to review and strategise on the way forward, in the light of recent developments in the selection process for the appointment of a DG for the trade organisation.

She said Nigeria was persuading the United States to adopt her candidate as WTO DG following the overwhelming support which Okonjo-Iweala had garnered.

The third and final round of consultations for the selection of a DG for the WTO, which commenced in Geneva on October 19, 2020, was concluded on October 27, 2020.

The Chairperson, WTO General Council, Amb. David Walker, of New Zealand, with the facilitators of the selection process, among others, on October 28, 2020, at the meeting of WTO Heads of Delegation in Geneva, informed the members of the organisation that Okonjo-Iweala secured overwhelming support of members.

They explained that the support was both in terms of numbers, as well as geographical spread and therefore emerged as the candidate most likely to gain consensus as DG of WTO.

Katagum expressed Nigeria’s profound appreciation to all members of the WTO who had supported Okonjo-Iweala, adding that Nigeria would reach out to other countries to secure the consensus needed in the final decision on her appointment.