US backs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for WTO chief role 

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Photo: Jay Louvion)

The United States has come out in support of Nigeria’s twice former finance minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to be the next director-general of the WTO, ending several months of deadlock over the top role. 

The US trade representative’s office on Friday said the Biden-Harris team expressed its “strong support” for Okonjo-Iweala, who if elected, is set to be the first woman to lead the global trade body and the first director-general from Africa.

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

Earlier on Friday, the Republic of Korea’s candidate Yoo Myung-hee officially withdrew from the race.  “Yoo made the final decision to resign from the candidate position in consideration of various issues such as the need to revitalise WTO functions,” South Korea’s ministry of trade, industry and energy said in a statement on its website.

The race had come to an abrupt halt at the end of November after former President Donald Trump’s administration had vetoed the appointment of Okonjo-Iweala, despite WTO officials leading the selection process finding that she had garnered the broadest range of support among member states. Decisions at the WTO are made on a consensus basis, with the backing of all countries needed.

With the path now clear for a new director-general to be appointed, hopes are that this will help put in motion the steps towards much-need reform at the struggling organisation, which has been leaderless since Roberto Azevedo stepped down at the end of August.  The WTO is expected to move forward with the election process, although it has yet to announce the schedule for doing so.

Okonjo-Iweala is the chair of GAVI, the vaccine alliance which is now playing a major role in helping to ensure the fair distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. The Harvard-educated economist also spent much of her career at the World Bank in Washington, where she she held a number of key positions, including managing director. During her time as Nigeria’s finance minister, she implemented a series of economic reforms, including the negotiation of major debt restructuring.

She tweeted on Friday that she was “grateful for the expression of support from the US” and congratulated Yoo “for a hard fought campaign”.

China appoints new ambassador to the WTO

Separately, China on Thursday named former assistant commerce minister Li Chenggang to lead its mission to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Li replaces Zhang Xiangchen, and will also serve as China's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva and other international organisations based in Switzerland. Xiangchen, who served at WTO representative for three years, has been appointed as vice-president at the ministry of commerce.