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Why The U.S. Blocked Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala As The First African WTO Director-General

wto ngozi okonjo iweala
Credit: Jungle Journalist Media Limited

Africans welcomed the news of the WTO nominations committee recommending to appoint Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the position of World Trade Organisation Director-General. However, it was short-lived good news as President Donald Trump’s administration vetoed a bid for the Nigeria-U.S. citizen to become the WTO’s first female African Director-General. In this article, we investigate the U.S. reason for blocking Ngozi’s candidature.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told reporters at the group’s headquarters in Geneva, after a closed-door meeting, that “one delegation could not support the candidacy of Dr. Ngozi and said they would continue to support South Korean minister Yoo. That delegation was the United States of America.” 

Instead of Ngozi, the U.S. prefers South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee. A statement from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which advises President Donald Trump on trade policy, said “Minister Yoo is a bonafide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade-policy maker. This is a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade. There have been no multilateral tariff negotiations in 25 years, the dispute-settlement system has gotten out of control, and too few members fulfill basic transparency obligations. The WTO is badly in need of major reform. It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”

Dr. Ngozi, however, says, “I’m a good listener, and you need listening skills to make this work, I’m pragmatic, and I’m solutions-oriented.” Qualities she believes make her fit for the global leadership position. 

Some other narratives linked America’s opposition to the Nigerian-born economist’s opportunity with a Chinese factor. According to an article from Nikkei Asia, “the opposition is reminiscent of the skepticism by President Donald Trump’s administration toward the World Health Organization, which is led by Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian foreign minister. The White House repeatedly criticized Tedros as being pro-China and ultimately announced a U.S. withdrawal from the WHO due to the group’s ‘alarming lack of independence’ from China.”

Like Ethiopia, Nigeria is a heavy recipient of Chinese economic aid. But Okonjo-Iweala has lived many years in the Washington suburbs due to her 25-year career at the World Bank. Her eventual appointment as the new Chief thrust her immediately into the U.S.-China tug of war over the future of the organization. 

President Trump has described the WTO as “horrible” and biased towards China. Some appointments to key roles in the organization have already been blocked.

But despite America’s position, “Dr. Ngozi looks forward to the General Council on Nov. 9 when the committee will recommend her appointment as director-general…A swift conclusion to the process will allow members to begin again to work, together, on the urgent challenges and priorities.” said Molly Toomey, a spokesperson for Okonjo-Iweala.

According to Bloomberg, if Trump wins, his aides have indicated they plan to continue to reshape the WTO with a narrower scope to resolve trade disputes. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins, it is likely WTO members will postpone the meeting until after the inauguration on Jan. 20, according to sources familiar with the matter. Even then, it might be several months after Biden takes office before the Senate could confirm a Trade Representative who would craft U.S. positions at the WTO.

China said it supported the outcome of the WTO process. The WTO’s decision-making process is based on consensus, and either candidate will need to win the blessing of all 164 members. Okonjo-Iweala’s eventual appointment would make her the first woman to lead the Geneva-based trade body.

Ngozi Was China’s Favorite Anyway

According to speculation, if Yoo were to win, it could damage China’s chances of holding onto the deputy director-general position, due to concerns over regional balance in the leadership. Among WTO’s four deputies, one is guaranteed to be American, with the other three positions rotating between Latin America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. China’s Yi Xiaozhun has been a deputy since 2013.

According to one academic familiar with China’s position, “the result of the second round of the director-general race is in line with our expectation…But in my personal view, the deputy director-general position is very important for China, so China will consider this seriously. Also, although Ngozi [Okonjo-Iweala] has a U.S. passport, she still represents Africa, which means the trade and development issues will matter a lot in her WTO agenda. This is in line with China’s expectations for WTO reform.”

Do you think the above reasons adequately explain why Donald Trump’s administration is opposing Ngozi’s candidature for WTO key position? Will Ngozi’s position help African countries relate with the rest of the world, especially China, on more mutually beneficial cooperation?

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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