Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: REUTERS
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Picture: REUTERS

Geneva — The US has given its formal backing to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO), removing the final obstacle to her bid to be the first woman and the first African to run the Geneva-based trade body.

“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy,” the office of the US trade representative said on Friday. “She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organisation with a diverse membership.”

The US office added it “looks forward to working with a new WTO director-general to find paths forward to achieve necessary substantive and procedural reform of the WTO”.

The Biden administration’s decision to support Okonjo-Iweala’s campaign will be viewed in Geneva as a welcome shift in US support for the multilateral trading system after four years of salvos against an organisation that former President Donald Trump previously called the worst trade deal the US signed.

With the US now joining a consensus, WTO general council chair David Walker is expected to soon announce a meeting in Geneva, where the organisation’s members will formally approve Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment to a four-year term as director-general. WTO spokesperson Keith Rockwell declined to comment.

On her Twitter account, Okonjo-Iweala said she was “grateful for the expression of support from the US”.

European Commission trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis tweeted his support of the US’s position, and urged colleagues to “move forward with her appointment so we can give the necessary stability to WTO and start the much-needed reform process”.

The appointment of a new WTO chief will help the beleaguered organisation to confront an array of internal crises and begin deliberating a more structured conversation of how to make 25-year-old WTO fit to govern the 21st century trading system.

The organisation has been without a leader since last September, when Roberto Azevedo vacated the position a year before his term was set to expire. Since then, the WTO has been overseen by four unelected deputy directors-general.

The WTO’s leadership-selection process reached an impasse last year when the Trump administration vetoed Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy and said it preferred her opponent, South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee.

That opposition was enough to halt the selection process because WTO decisions are made on the basis of a consensus of its 164 members. Yoo ended her campaign on Friday after consultations with the Biden administration.

Okonjo-Iweala previously served as Nigeria’s finance minister and has experience working at international governance bodies as a former MD of the World Bank.

She was until recently a chair at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, a position that gave her a unique perspective on how global trade can help facilitate the rollout of vaccines and other critical tools needed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 66-year-old Nigerian economist, who is also a US citizen, has pledged to take a more active role as director-general and to act as a sounding board to try to find common ground among the trade body’s disparate membership.

Though the power of the WTO leader is limited by the directives of its members, the director-general can convene meetings, and offer suggestions and strategies for addressing conflicts in the global trading system.



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