How Okonjo-Iweala emerged WTO Director General

How Okonjo-Iweala emerged WTO Director General

Tuesday, February 16, 2021 1:20 pm


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

          By Nehru Odeh

There is no getting away from her. She had been first on many occasions. She had also excelled at home and abroad and had ever since been on a constant career journey to the top  She had been criticized for being down to earth and branded Okonjo Wahala (meaning trouble), even though she meant well.

She had recently faced a stiff opposition and all hopes seemed bleak, not because she wasn’t fit for the job but because of a trade war between two economic superpowers. Still she emerged triumphant in the end.

This is the roller coaster story of Harvard-trained economist, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Nigeria’s first female finance and foreign affairs minister and former Managing Director of the World Bank whose appointment as the Director General of the World Trade Organization was on Monday confirmed by the WTO.

However, what makes her appointment remarkable is that she had faced a stumbling block when the Trump administration opposed her appointment only for her to add another feather to her cap and made history as the first female president of WTO and the first African to head that organization.

Okonjo-Iweala beat Ms Yoo Myung-hee, South Korea’s trade minister by a wide margin to emerge victorious. She polled 104 votes from 164 member countries to defeat her at the final stage of the race.

No mean feat? Certainly. Initially the Trump administer had put a spanner in the works. But that was reversed with the coming of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States.  However, following Myung-hee’s decision to withdraw her candidacy on 5 February, the Biden administration dropped the US objection and announced its “strong support” for her candidacy.

However,  Myung-hee had made her decision to withdraw her candidacy after “close consultation” with the US.  And the coast became clear on Friday 12 February when Biden expressed his support for Okonjo-Iweala and her emergence as Director General of WTO was just a matter of time.

Of course, if her track record is anything to go by, Okonjo- Iweala is fit for the job and will no doubt perform exceedingly well. In a congratulatory message, President of the European Council, Charles Michel, expressed confidence in her ability to perform. “My warmest wishes to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala @NOIweala on your appointment as Director General of @wto. You bring a wealth of experience and expertise at a time when the WTO needs reform. Count on full support of the EU,” Michel tweeted.

However, Okonjo-Iweala has said she will bring a pair of fresh eyes and ears to the WTO. “I am honoured to have been selected by WTO members as WTO Director-General. A strong WTO is vital if we are to recover fully and rapidly from the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I look forward to working with members to shape and implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.

“Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today,” Okonjo-Iweala said, reacting to her appointment.

Still, Okonjo-Iweala’s climb to the top of the World Trade Organization wasn’t a free ride and devoid of thorns. The question, however, is: Why was the Trump administration opposed to her candidacy. The answer is not far-fetched.

 Her appointment was staunchly opposed by the Trumps administration not because she wasn’t fit for the job but rather because it was more comfortable having her then rival, Myung-hee as Director General of the organization. Donald Trump had described WTO as horrible and biased toward China and believed Myung-hee would set things right in the organization.

“This is a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade. There have been no multilateral tariff negotiations in 25 years, the dispute settlement system has gotten out of control, and too few members fulfill basic transparency obligations. The WTO is badly in need of major reform,” the Office of the US Trade Representative, which advises President Donald Trump on trade policy, had said in a statement.

Of course, Okonjo-Iweala is not oblivious of the Herculean task ahead, what with a World Trade Organization sharply divided and in its deepest crisis since 1995.  The WTO is badly in need of reforms as regards the way it settles trade disputes. There have been trade disputes between countries especially between the United States and China and the WTO is no longer able to settle them as the United States has blocked the appointment of appeal judges. As a result free trade talks have been stalled for years, and it now also faces a global economic crisis.

However this is not a strange turf for the Harvard-trained economist. She had earlier said her broad experience in championing reform made her the right person for the job. “I am a reform candidate and I think the WTO needs the reform credentials and skills now, Okonjo-Iweala had averred.

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