WTO: Finally, US Backs Okonjo-Iweala as Main Challenger Withdraws

Festus Akanbi

At last, the United State government yesterday gave its formal approval to the emergence of Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director General of the World Trade Organization, removing the final obstacle to her bid to be the first woman and the first African to run the Geneva-based trade body.

In a swift response last night, Okonjo-Iweala expressed gratitude to President Muhammadu Buhari and Nigerians for their unflinching support for her run to become the director-general of the WTO.

She also expressed her gratitude to the US, and congratulated Yoo Mhung-Hee for “a hard fought campaign”. She tweeted: “Thank You President Buhari and all Nigerians for your unflinching support. Thank you friends. Love to my family. Glory to God.”

The endorsement of the candidacy of the Nigerian former minister was sequel to the withdrawal of her main challenger, the South Korean Trade Minister, Yoo Myung-hee from the race.
In a symbolic approval, the United States Trade Representative office in a statement yesterday said: “Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy.”

The statement reads: “The United States takes note of today’s decision by The Republic of Korea’s Trade Minister Yoo Myung- hee to withdraw her candidacy for Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
“The Biden-Harris Administration is pleased to express its strong support for the candidacy of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director General of the WTO.

“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister. She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organisation with a diverse membership.”

The Biden-Harris Administration also congratulated Minister Yoo Myung-hee on her strong campaign for the position, saying she is a trailblazer as the Republic of Korea’s first female trade minister and the first candidate from Korea to advance this far in the Director General race.

The USTR adds: “looks forward to working with a new WTO director-general to find paths forward to achieve necessary substantive and procedural reform of the WTO.”

The Biden administration’s decision to support Okonjo-Iweala’s campaign will be viewed in Geneva as a welcome shift in U.S. support for the multilateral trading system following four years of salvos against an organization that former President Donald Trump previously called the worst trade deal the U.S. ever signed.

The appointment of a new WTO chief will help the beleaguered organisation to confront an array of internal crises and begin deliberating a more structured conversation of how to make 25-year-old WTO fit to govern the 21st century trading system.

The organisation has been without a leader since September, when Roberto Azevedo vacated the position a year before his term was set to expire. Since then, the WTO has been overseen by four unelected deputy directors-general.
The WTO’s leadership-selection process reached an impasse last year when the Trump administration vetoed Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy and said it preferred her opponent, South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee.

That opposition was enough to halt the selection process because WTO decisions are made on the basis of a consensus of its 164 members. Yoo ended her campaign yesterday following consultations with the Biden administration.

Yoo Myung-hee had stepped down from the race, leaving Okonjo-Iweala as the only remaining candidate for the top job.
A statement from the Korea’s trade ministry said Yoo made the decision to withdraw from the race after discussions with the U.S. and other major nations, and took various issues into account “comprehensively” including the need to revitalise the multilateral organisation.
By quitting the race, Yoo was said to have cleared Okonjo-Iweala’s path to secure the leadership of the Geneva-based institution.

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