Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a step closer to becoming the first African and first woman to lead the World Trade Organization, after a South Korean rival withdrew on Friday following months of uncertainty over the body’s leadership.
Okonjo-Iweala faced opposition from the US administration of former President Donald Trump after a WTO selection panel recommended her as chief in October. The decision required consensus.
South Korea’s trade minister Yoo Myung-hee’s withdrawal clears the way for Okonjo-Iweala to be director-general of the global trade watchdog. Okonjo-Iweala said she was looking forward to the conclusion of the race.
“There is vital work ahead to do together,” the former finance minister and World Bank executive said in a statement, saying she wanted to focus on needed reforms.
The embattled Geneva-based body has gone without a director-general since Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo quit a year early in August and his replacement must contend with a Covid-induced recession, US-China tensions and rising protectionism.
In the more than three months since the selection panel recommended Okonjo-Iweala, Yoo had resisted mounting diplomatic pressure to bow out, until Friday.
“In order to promote the functions of WTO and in consideration of various factors, I have decided to withdraw my candidacy,” Yoo said in a statement.
Yoo, who was a finalist selected from among eight candidates to lead the body, said her decision was made after consulting with allies including the US.
Twice Nigeria’s finance minister and its first woman foreign minister, Okonjo-Iweala has been a trailblazer.
Now the 66-year-old is looking to break another barrier as she bids to become the first African and woman to head the WTO.
Aside from her time in public office, the development economist had a quarter-century at the World Bank — rising to be managing director and running for the top role in 2012.
Born in 1954 in Ogwashi Ukwu, in Delta State, western Nigeria, her father is a traditional ruler. She spent much of her life in the United States, graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, where she sent her four children.
Critics slam ‘silence’ over Nigerian corruption
But not everyone agrees her track record is impeccable.
“Okonjo-Iweala may have done some box-checking technocratic transparency reforms in her ministry but the fact is, nearly a billion dollars a month were going missing from oil revenues when she was finance minister,” said Sarah Chayes, author of “Thieves of State”, a book about corruption.
“I think it’s a shame she is even being considered for the role,” said Chayes.
“There is an appetite for this kind of good news story at a time when diversity issues are paramount, being female and black doesn’t hurt.”
The former minister has portrayed herself as a champion against Nigeria’s rampant corruption — and says her own mother was even kidnapped over her attempts to tackle the scourge.
But critics insist she should have done more to stop it while in power.
“At the very least, she had the opportunity to resign from office and expose the corruption,” said Olanrewaju Suraju, from the Human and Environmental Development Agenda campaign group.
“Rather, she kept quiet and allowed high-level corruption to fester under the regime, only to complain after leaving office.”
Waiting for Washington
The leadership race comes Observers say the WTO is facing the deepest crisis in its 25-year history.
It has not clinched a major multilateral trade deal in years and failed to hit a 2020 deadline on ending subsidies for overfishing.
Some of its functions are paralysed due to the actions of the Trump administration which blocked judge appointments to its top appeals body.
Many hope that the change of US administration will lead to reform of the organisation.
However, Washington under President Joe Biden has not yet publicly said who it is supporting as the next head although it is considering the question.
It also said that it is committed to “positive, constructive and active engagement” on reforming the body.
Okonjo-Iweala has previously stressed the need for the WTO to play a role in helping poorer countries with Covid-19 drugs and vaccines — an issue on which members have failed to agree in ongoing negotiations.
The WTO could in theory call a meeting of its 164 members to confirm the next chief at short notice.
However, some delegates saw that as unlikely given that Biden’s choice of trade representative, Katherine Tai, has not yet been sworn in. Nor has a Geneva-based deputy been selected.
The International Chamber of Commerce’s John Denton urged WTO members to act quickly.
“With geopolitical tensions high, the global economy in recession and ‘vaccine nationalism’ threatening an equitable recovery, there is now no reason for further delay in filling this critical role with the well-qualified candidate at the ready,” he said.
Former US government officials, diplomats and academics also wrote a letter to Biden on Jan. 19 asking him to support Okonjo-Iweala.