Top world trade job set for African candidate, despite Trump’s blocking tactics

epa08547706 Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, from Nigeria, candidate as Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), attends the press conferences of candidates for the WTO Director-General selection process, at the headquarters of the World Trade Organization (WTO), in Geneva, Switzerland, 15 July 2020. EPA-EFE/MARTIAL TREZZINI

Members of the World Trade Organisation are likely to appoint Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the trade body’s director general next week despite attempts by US President Donald Trump to block the former Nigerian finance minister.

Senior WTO officials are set to make a formal announcement on Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment at a general council meeting scheduled for 9 November in Geneva, by which time the US presidential election is likely to have been settled.

Last week, WTO General Council Chair David Walker stated that the “troika” of facilitators tasked with assisting the international organisation in the selection of candidates, had recommended that Okonjo-Iweala be appointed as the WTO’s next Director-General, following a three month consultation process.

However, in what could be one of its last international policy moves, the Trump administration last week blocked the nomination and continues to support South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee.

Okonjo-Iweala, a former World Bank managing director, has the backing of the European Commission as well as most EU member states and would be the first woman and first African to hold the WTO’s top job.

European Council President Charles Michel reiterated the EU’s support for Okonjo-Iweala at a video conference with Nigerian President Muhammudu Buhari last week, while the bloc’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said that the EU’s support for Okonjo-Iweala was part of an agenda to make Europe’s political support for Africa “more concrete and visual”.

EU backs Nigerian candidate for WTO leadership

Nigerian finance ministrer Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala picked up crucial backing from the EU on Monday (26 October), sources said, giving her bid to become the first African head of the WTO a major boost.

In a statement on Thursday (5 November), South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who also currently chairs the African Union, reiterated the AU’s “full support” for Okonjo-Iweala, adding that “the AU trusts that, in the same spirit, nothing will stand in the way of the WTO making the right decision for the organisation.”

Though the Director-General appointment has traditionally been made by consensus, the US does not have a formal veto. The last time that member states failed to reach a consensus, the two candidates shared the post by serving for two years each.

However, the second wave of COVID-19 has prompted discussions among officials about whether to delay the 9 November meeting.

On Thursday, following local media reports that Yoo plans to withdraw from the selection process, the South Korean foreign ministry issued a statement, saying: “We are comprehensively reviewing the future course of the candidate or the government’s position on the matter and no decision has been made in any direction”.

US President Donald Trump has been a major critic of the WTO throughout his term, and his administration has hobbled the institution’s Appellate Body – also known as the supreme court of world trade – by blocking the appointment of new judges, leaving it without the required quorum to make decisions.

Analysts say that Joe Biden presidency would quickly move to re-build relations with international organisations including the WTO as well as the World Health Organisation and United Nations.

Yoo negotiated the Trump administration’s first trade deal back in 2018. The US Trade Representative is also reported to regard Okonjo-Iweala as “too close to pro-trade internationalists”.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s stated last week that the next WTO chief must have “real, hands-on experience in the field” threw little light over their motivations, remarks seen as a veiled criticism of Okonjo-Iweala who has not negotiated trade deals before.

Race for the WTO hot-seat leans toward Africa

COVID-19’s potential to wreck long-term damage on global commerce means the World Trade Organisation (WTO) faces a crucial period under a new director-general, who may end up hailing from Africa for the very first time.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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