Okonjo-Iweala Receives Major Boost, as EU Backs Nigerian Economist to Lead WTO

The EU will back former Nigeria Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as the next director-general of the World Trade Organization, further boosting her frontrunner status.

Ambassadors from the EU’s 27 member states confirmed on Monday that the bloc would throw its weight behind Okonjo-Iweala, following discussions among EU leaders during their summit in Brussels last week.

Okonjo-Iweala, is facing off against South Korea’s trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee, in the final round of voting at the WTO. The winner is expected to be declared early next month.

A Nigerian economist and international development expert, she sits on the Boards of Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), and the African Risk Capacity (ARC).

Previously, Okonjo-Iweala spent a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, scaling the ranks to the Number 2 position of Managing Director, Operations.

She also served two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria under the leadership of President Olusegun Obasanjo and President Goodluck Jonathan respectively.

An EU official said the decision to back Okonjo-Iweala, who would be the first WTO chief from Africa, was “a strong signal to reinforce the multilateral order”, as well as “a clear signal towards Africa and a sign of mutual trust”.

Policymakers, including Valdis Dombrovskis, EU trade commissioner, Peter Altmaier, German economy minister, and Charles Michel, EU Council president, have sought to forge a common EU stance for the final voting round. The EU itself had decided not to field a candidate of its own.

An EU diplomat said that during the internal deliberations, Okonjo-Iweala had been backed by France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, among others. Yoo found considerable support among EU governments in central and eastern Europe, including the Baltic states.

A person briefed on the discussions among ambassadors on Monday said Latvia and Hungary — the last two holdout countries favouring Yoo — agreed to switch and join the majority position at a special meeting convened at 6pm.

Trade diplomats from the EU27 held hearings with both candidates on October 14.

The EU decision leaves Yoo facing an uphill struggle. Japan and China are expected to exercise a de facto veto against her because of political tensions with Seoul.

The new director-general needs to be chosen by consensus among the WTO’s 160-plus member governments. The role became available because of the unexpected early resignation of Roberto Azevêdo, a Brazilian who had held the job since 2013. He stepped down in September.

The new chief will take over at a time when the WTO’s capacity to promote rules-based trade has been undermined by gaps in its rule book. These have been exposed by China’s model of capitalism, and by US President Donald Trump’s propensity for taking unilateral action to hit back against perceived ill-treatment of US companies.

But the new director-general will also assume office at a pivotal moment, when the international community will either be adjusting to a new US administration or preparing for another four years of Trump.

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