China-Backed Nigerian Economist to Become First Woman Head of World Trade Organization

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19: Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Former Nigerian Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Fianace speaks at The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at Grand Hyatt New York on September 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee withdrew her candidacy for leadership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Friday, clearing the field for Nigerian economist and former trade minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to take the position.

Okonjo-Iweala had the backing of China, Japan, Australia, most of Africa, and the European Union, while Yoo was the favored candidate of the United States under the previous administration.

The previous head of the WTO, Roberto Azevedo of Brazil, became director-general in 2013 and was supposed to remain until 2021, but he stepped down a year early in September, saying it was important for his successor to be chosen before the next WTO ministerial meeting.

“The selection process would be a distraction from — or worse, a disruption to — our desired outcomes,” Azevedo said when he announced his early resignation, describing the selection of director-general as “a politically-charged process that has proved divisive in the past.” 

Some observers thought he was choosing the worst possible time to leave, given the worldwide economic stresses of the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. The Trump administration considered withdrawing from the WTO entirely, having criticized it for abusing its authority in some areas, while not doing enough to correct China’s unfair trade practices.

In the final round of voting in October, after six other candidates were winnowed out, Okonjo-Iweala reportedly received about 100 of the 164 votes from WTO member states. Yoo was not required to drop out as a result of the final round vote, so she stayed in the race while the U.S. presidential election played out. The U.S. blocked the WTO from using the results of the final-round voting to anoint Okonjo-Iweala.

The Trump administration’s trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, praised Yoo as a “bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policymaker.” 

On the other hand, Lighthizer said appointing Okonjo-Iweala would be a “mistake” because she has “no experience in trade at all.”

“We need a person who actually knows trade, not somebody from the World Bank who does development,” Lighthizer said in January. “There are very few areas where you would say, ‘Here’s an organization in very bad shape, let’s get someone who knows nothing about its core mission.’”

Yoo, 54, was South Korea’s first female trade minister, appointed to the post by President Moon Jae-in in 2019. Educated in the United States and experienced at negotiating with China, supportive of the WTO’s core mission but aware of the organization’s deficiencies, she appealed to her supporters as a solid compromise candidate whose appointment might have prompted the international community to “cease treating China as the only significant voice in Asia,” as Thomas Byrne of the Korea Society argued in a November op-ed at The Diplomat.

Yoo said Friday she was withdrawing because the future of the WTO had become “uncertain” due to “the prolonged vacancy of leadership.”

“To speed up the consensus building among the member countries on selecting a new director-general, I have decided to renounce my candidacy through close cooperation with the United States, our strong ally,” she said.

“Washington, which showed strong support for my candidacy, also respects the decision to step down from the race,” she added.

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, was Nigeria’s first female foreign minister in addition to serving as finance minister. She also had a 25-year career with the World Bank that culminated in her becoming its managing director. Like Yoo, she was educated in the United States, graduating from Harvard and MIT. She holds dual American and Nigerian citizenship.

AFP noted Friday that “not everyone agrees her track record is impeccable,” quoting criticism that huge sums of Nigerian oil revenue disappeared while she was finance minister, and she did not do enough against her country’s endemic corruption.

“At the very least, she had the opportunity to resign from office and expose the corruption. Rather, she kept quiet and allowed high level corruption to fester under the regime, only to complain after leaving office,” human rights activist Olanrewaju Suraju complained.

AFP noted Okonjo-Iweala has criticized “growing protectionism and nationalism” and has called for “some of the barriers created by intellectual property and technology transfer laws” to be removed so coronavirus vaccines can be more “equitably distributed.”

Such positions would not have been welcomed by the Trump White House, which was very concerned about China getting away with unfair trade practices and astounding levels of intellectual property theft. According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Okonjo-Iweala “fought tooth and nail to win over the Trump administration, but to no avail.”

The SCMP quoted analysts who expected Okonjo-Iweala to fare much better with the Biden administration, which might have signaled South Korea that Yoo should withdraw and clear the way for her rival:

In a recent op-ed for the Hinrich Foundation, former Trump trade official Clete Willems wrote that the new US government “is likely to lift the hold on the naming of a new WTO director general, to more actively work with allies through the system to hold China accountable for its unfair trade practices, and to engage in fewer overtly provocative unilateral trade actions”.

Biden’s pick to replace Lighthizer as USTR, Katherine Tai, has yet to be confirmed, but is also thought to strongly favor engaging with the Geneva institution.

CNN on Friday anticipated President Joe Biden would “proceed with caution when it comes to signing any new trade deals” despite his dedication to multilateral institutions, hinting Biden might be wary of antagonizing pandemic-weary American middle-class voters by moving too quickly. However, Politico noted Biden’s team has “said it preferred a swift move to appoint a WTO head.”

A spokesperson for Okonjo-Iweala said she “looks forward to the conclusion of the director-general selection process” and congratulated Yoo on her “long campaign.”

“The WTO must turn its focus to the Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] pandemic and global economic recovery. Dr Okonjo-Iweala is eager to focus on the many needed reforms at the WTO. She is humbled by the support she has received from WTO members and of champions in Nigeria and other parts of the world,” the spokesperson said.

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