WTO under Ngozi offers hope for Africa trade

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A KEY group of World Trade Organisation (WTO) ambassadors has proposed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead the World Trade Organisation, trade sources told Reuters on Wednesday, clearing a path for her to become the first woman and African to head the global watchdog in its 25-year history.

The decision, yet to be finalised, caps a more than four-month selection process involving intensive lobbying which saw her square up against South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee in the final round.

The recommendation of former minister Okonjo-Iweala was made by three WTO ambassadors, the so-called ‘troika’, after consulting with members in a series of closed-door meetings in Geneva as part of an intricate and secretive process that some have compared to a papal succession.

The troika, led by New Zealand’s Ambassador David Walker, is due to make the formal recommendation to a closed-door meeting of heads of delegations at 3 p.m. (1400 GMT).

It still needs to be approved by consensus at a meeting of the WTO’s 164 members.

Many members such as China and the United States have declined to name their preference publicly although some African, Caribbean and other states have voiced support for Okonjo-Iweala.

The European Union endorsed Okonjo-Iweala on October 26. However, three sources following the contest said that Washington had privately indicated a preference for Yoo, although it is unknown whether it would block Ngozi.

The leadership void was created after outgoing WTO chief Roberto Azevedo, from Brazil, stepped down a year early in August. The WTO is currently being steered by four deputies.

Okonjo-Iweala, a 66-year-old former finance minister and World Bank managing director, will face considerable challenges with rival economies bickering amid rising tensions and protectionism during a coronavirus-induced trade plunge.

Her inbox will also feature an overhaul of the WTO’s top appeals body – which U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has brought to its knees by blocking judge appointments – and a major trade conference in 2021.

Okonjo-Iweala, a development expert, has branded herself a ‘do-er’, saying she has the political clout to command influence in capitals.

Economic analysts also believe her tenure would direct more focus on the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). ‘Even in the face of US opposition, the World Trade Organisation’s majority support for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director General marks a potential sea change in the body that sets the rules for global commerce,’ says Michael Nderitu, Head of Trading at  AZA, Africa’s largest non-bank currency broker.

‘A WTO under Ngozi would throw a spotlight on Africa’s plans to build the world’s biggest free trade area through AfCFTA. Her leadership could help reduce reliance on imports that Africa could be producing on home soil, and focus minds on ways to ensure those products Africa exports to the global market fetch fair value. As the world stands united behind Ngozi’s leadership, a new US presidency must surely yield to the overwhelming collective will of nations,’ he says.

Okonjo-Iweala’s confidence to deliver is apparent. ‘I feel I can solve the problems. I’m a known reformer, not someone who talks about it. I’ve actually done it both at the World Bank and in my country,’ she told Reuters.

Currently chair of the of GAVI vaccine alliance board, Okonjo-Iweala has also said the WTO should play a role in helping poorer countries access COVID-19 drugs and vaccines.

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