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Nigeria drums up support for Okonjo-Iweala as U.S. explains opposition

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By Vincent Ikuomola (Abuja) and Bisi Olaniyi (Benin)

Nigeria resolved on Thursday to intensify its push for Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s aspiration to lead the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO’s) as Director-General.

The decision was a taken on a day the United States (U.S.) defended its opposition to Okonjo-Iweala’s emergence.

In a statement, the Federal Government said it will continue to engage relevant stakeholders to ensure the former Minister of Finance leads the world body.

The statement signed by spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Ferdinand Nwoye, reads: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wishes to inform that the third and final round of the selection process of the Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) was concluded on Tuesday, 27th October, 2020 and the result was formally announced on Wednesday, 28th October, 2020.

“The candidate from Nigeria, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has secured the support of majority of the member countries, but is yet to be declared and returned the winner.

“This is because apart from winning the election, all the 164 member-states of the WTO were expected to adopt the winner by consensus, in accordance with the rule of procedure of the WTO. It is important to highlight that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala has secured cross-regional backing, with only the U.S. opposing the consensus.

“The ministry wishes to further inform that a meeting of the General Council of the WTO has been scheduled for November 9, 2020 for the final decision on the election process.

“Nigeria will continue to engage relevant stakeholders to ensure that the lofty aspiration of her candidate to lead the World Trade Organisation is realised.”

Also on Thursday, Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki described the former World Bank Managing Director (Operations) as the best option for the WTO top job.

Obaseki noted that Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala’s competence and experience as a renowned economist and international development expert made her eminently suited for the job.

The governor described the former minister as a global icon with proven leadership skills that is required by WTO to chart a new course for global trade, amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

He urged the U.S. to align with Nigeria and other nations to support the candidacy of the renowned economist, stressing she possess the requisite temperament, skill-set and experience needed to lead the global trade body.

Obaseki said: “As a two-time minister in Nigeria, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, with proven leadership skills, left indelible marks as an astute manager of the nation’s economy and resources.

“She has in time past spearheaded several World Bank initiatives as a former Managing Director (Operations) and possesses the bundle of skills and experience required for the new role.

“In the light of the coronavirus pandemic, she will bring her experience as the board chair of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, in negotiating the right deals to deliver vaccines, build stronger alliances to promote multilateral trade and instill needed discipline to advance development of developing economies to address trade imbalance.

“Having garnered the overwhelming support of the WTO’s 164 members, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala has moved a step closer to becoming the first woman and the first African to be director-general of the global trade watchdog in its 25-year history.”

A selection panel (Troika) overwhelmingly identified the former Finance minister as the candidate preferred by most of the members to head the organisation.

She secured 163 votes of the 164-members trade organisation on Wednesday.

Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala could not be declared the head of the WTO because of the objection raised by the U.S.

A statement yesterday by the office of the U.S. Trade Representative cited lack of experience and procedural issues for its stance.

The statement reads: “The Office of the United States Trade Representative issued the following statement today on the selection of the next World Trade Organisation Director-General.

“The U.S. supports the selection of Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee as the next WTO Director-General. Minister Yoo is a bona fide trade expert, who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy-maker.  She has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organisation.

“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. Okonjo-Iweala was reported to have emerged the preferred candidate for the WTO top office after reports emerged in Geneva that she garnered the overwhelming backing from the vast majority of WTO member-countries in the Caribbean, Africa, the European Union, China, Japan and Australia.

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Dennis Shea, during a meeting of WTO delegates in Geneva, said the U.S. could not support a consensus decision to appoint Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, according to three officials, who monitored the proceedings.

She said the U.S. disagreed with the way the process was being carried out.

On November 9, the WTO General Council, which is the highest decision-making body after the Ministerial Conference, is scheduled to ratify the report of the WTO DG selection panel.

An original list of eight candidates, which included the UK’s Liam Fox, has been whittled down to a final two since the summer.

By tradition, WTO chooses its director-general by consensus, with all 164 members approving a candidate. The U.S. has been unhappy with the way the WTO has operated for some time, objecting to China’s designation as a developing country and blocking the appointment of new judges to the organisation’s appeals body.

A WTO spokesman said her candidacy would be tabled at a meeting of the body’s governing general council on November 9, adding that there was likely to be “frenzied activity” in the meantime to secure consensus.

In the event that Washington maintains that it will not support Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO’s Constitution provides for a vote, although every previous director-general in the organisation’s 25-year history has been appointed by consensus. Trade experts said life would be difficult, if an appointment was made against the wishes of the U.S.

The General Council of the WTO will on November 9 take a final decision on the election process. The crucial meeting is the final process where the candidate selected is to get a consensus endorsement of all the members.

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