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Path clears for Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala to be first woman head of WTO

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 15, 2020 Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala looks on, 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. – Key WTO ambassadors tapped Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on October 26, 2020 as the best pick to lead the organisation, but she was opposed by Washington, who said it supported South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee instead. The so-called troika of ambassadors heading the World Trade Organization’s three main branches determined after four months of consultations with member states that Okonjo-Iweala was the most likely to obtain the consensus needed to take the top job, paving the way for her to become the first woman and the first African at its helm. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

South Korea’s trade minister abandoned her bid to head the World Trade Organization on Friday, clearing a likely path for Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to become the body’s first female and first African director-general.

Yoo Myung-hee had consulted with the United States — her prime backer — and other major countries and “decided to renounce her candidacy”, South Korea’s trade ministry said in a statement.

The process to name a successor for Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down last August, has been deadlocked for months.

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Key WTO ambassadors tapped Okonjo-Iweala back in October as the best pick to lead the organisation but then-US president Donald Trump’s administration maintained its opposition to her appointment.

The WTO head is normally chosen by consensus among all 164 member states, so the process was left at a standstill.

Yoo’s departure leaves Okonjo-Iweala as the only remaining candidate, but that does not automatically mean the Nigerian will get the job.

“The selection requires consensus, which in practice means that the US must declare that they are joining the consensus around Ngozi,” a Western trade diplomat told AFP.

The US mission in Geneva did not immediately respond to questions about whether Yoo’s about-face, coming just two weeks after Joe Biden was sworn in as US president, indicated that Washington had changed its position.

But the Western trade diplomat said it was “easy to conclude that the reason (Yoo) is withdrawing is that the US has signalled it is moving towards doing exactly that.”

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‘Short notice’
WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told AFP the next regular meeting of the organisation’s General Council, where the leadership issue could be discussed, was not scheduled until March 1.

But, he stressed, “another could be called on short notice,” since the last meeting in October had merely been suspended amid the deadlock.

Rockwell meanwhile said Seoul had yet to confirm the withdrawal of Yoo’s candidacy, nor said whether it would endorse Okonjo-Iweala.

Observers suggested that South Korea had long been under pressure from the US — an ally that has 28,500 troops in the country to defend it from nuclear-armed North Korea — to keep Yoo in the race.

At the same time, Seoul faced anger from African countries and others for not bowing out.

“Korea is stuck between a rock and a hard place,” a Western trade diplomat told AFP at the time.

As part of Friday’s announcement, the South Korean trade ministry vowed the country would “continue to make various contributions to rebuild and enhance the multilateral trade system.”

‘Good news’
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.

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

If she does get the nod, Okonjo-Iweala will certainly have her work cut out for her as the first woman and also first African to lead the WTO.

The crisis-wracked organisation is widely seen as being in need of reform.

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

The global trade body has also faced relentless attacks from Washington, which has crippled its dispute settlement appeal system and, under Trump, had threatened to leave the organisation altogether.

Twice Nigeria’s finance minister and its first woman foreign minister, Ngozi 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.

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
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