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Okonjo-Iweala reacts to US endorsement for WTO top job

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 15, 2020 Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attends a press conference on July 15, 2020, in Geneva, following her hearing before World Trade Organization 164 member states’ representatives, as part of the application process to head the WTO as Director General. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Friday night said she was grateful for the United States government endorsing her for the vacant position of World Trade Organisation’s director-general.

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President Joe Biden’s administration threw it weight behind Okonjo-Iweala last Friday after South Korea’s trade minister Yoo Myung-hee dropped out of the race to lead the organisation.

Yoo  enjoyed the support of the former American President Donald Trump, whose support for the Korean blocked Okonjo-Iweala-Iweala from being named for the WTO top job since last November.

“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,” US Trade Representative said in a statement on Friday.

“She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.”

In her reaction to the US endorsement, – the only obstacle in her path – Okonjo-Iweala said she was “grateful”. She thanked Yoo Myung-hee for running a “hard fought campaign,” and the Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari and her countrymen for their “unflinching support”.

President Buhari had promised in October to make “whatever phone calls need to be made” to ensure she gets the nod for the job.

“I will continue to see support from world leaders on her behalf,” the Buhari tweeted on October 20. That tweet was retweeted on Saturday by the Nigerian Government.

Trailblazer Okonjo-Iweala
The initial pool of eight candidates for the WTO’s top post was whittled down to just two over two previous rounds of consultations, with only Okonjo-Iweala and  Yoo still in the race.

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Key ambassadors picked the former Nigerian finance minister to lead the World Trade Organisation in October. The ambassadors, after months of consultations with members of the WTO, picked Okonjo-Iweala as the most likely to obtain the consensus needed to take the top job, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said.

But the United States under Donald Trump thwarted her being formally named as the DG.

The US Trade Representative said at the time that South Korea’s Yoo had the “all the skills necessary” to reform the organisation. Yoo ultimately dropped out, leaving the path clear for Okonjo-Iweala.

A European diplomat hailed Yoo’s decision to drop out of the race.

“We salute the spirit of responsibility in this decision. This is good news for multilateralism,” he told AFP.

“Now nothing stands in the way of members rapidly approving the Nigerian candidate, Doctor Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who won the selection process.”

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When she does get the nod, Okonjo-Iweala would become the first woman and also the first African to lead the WTO.

The crisis-wracked organisation is widely seen as needing reform.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, it had grappled with stalled trade talks and struggled to curb tensions between the United States and China.

The global trade body also faced relentless attacks from Washington under Trump, which crippled its dispute settlement appeal system.

The previous US leader had threatened to leave the organisation altogether.

Twice Nigeria’s finance minister and its first woman foreign minister, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, trained as a development economist — she has degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard.

She spent a quarter of a century at the World Bank, rising to be managing director and running for the top role in 2012, and is seen as a trailblazer in her home country.

Additional report by AFP.

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