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Path clears for Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala as first woman WTO chief

Nina Larson with Claire Lee in Seoul
·3-min read
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, 66, trained as a development economist and was twice Nigeria's finance minister and its first woman foreign minister, with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard

US President Joe Biden's administration on Friday offered its "strong support" to Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to lead the World Trade Organization (WTO), clearing a path for her to become the body's first female and first African leader.

The move marks another sharp split with former president Donald Trump, who paralysed the organisation and opposed the candidacy of the former Nigerian finance minister who was backed by many other countries.

The US Trade Representative in a statement cited her "wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy" and said she had "proven experience managing a large international organisation".

USTR also noted that South Korea's trade minister -- whom the Trump administration supported -- had abandoned her bid to head the WTO earlier Friday.

Yoo Myung-hee consulted with the United States -- her primary backer -- and other major countries and "decided to renounce her candidacy", South Korea's trade ministry said in a statement.

The process to name a successor for Roberto Azevedo, who stepped down last August, had been deadlocked for months.

Key WTO ambassadors tapped Okonjo-Iweala back in October as the best pick to lead the organisation, but without US support the process was left at a standstill since the director general is normally chosen by consensus among all 164 member states.

"The United States stands ready to engage in the next phase of the WTO process for reaching a consensus decision on the WTO Director General," USTR said.

"The Biden Administration looks forward to working with a new WTO Director General to find paths forward to achieve necessary substantive and procedural reform of the WTO."

Okonjo-Iweala later said on Twitter: "Grateful for the expression of support from the US today."

The next regular meeting of the Geneva-based organisation's General Council, where the leadership issue could be discussed, was not until March 1, WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell told AFP.

But, he stressed, "another could be called on short notice", since the last meeting in October had been suspended amid the deadlock.

- 'Good news' -

A European diplomat hailed Yoo's decision to drop out of the race.

"We salute the spirit of responsibility in this decision. This is good news for multilateralism," he told AFP.

"Now nothing stands in the way of members rapidly approving the Nigerian candidate, Doctor Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who won the selection process."

If she does get the nod, Okonjo-Iweala would become the first woman and also the first African to lead the WTO.

The crisis-wracked organisation is widely seen as needing reform.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, it had grappled with stalled trade talks and struggled to curb tensions between the United States and China.

The global trade body also faced relentless attacks from Washington under Trump, which crippled its dispute settlement appeal system.

The previous US leader had threatened to leave the organisation altogether.

Twice Nigeria's finance minister and its first woman foreign minister, Okonjo-Iweala, 66, trained as a development economist -- she has degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard.

She spent a quarter of a century at the World Bank, rising to be managing director and running for the top role in 2012, and is seen as a trailblazer in her home country.

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