Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala brings Africa a step closer to WTO leadership

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has progressed to the final round of the WTO's leadership race, raising the chances of an African heading the global trade organisation.


Image : Nicholas KAMM/AFP

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has progressed to the third and final round of the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) leadership race, raising the chances of an African director-general at the most powerful organisation in global trade. 

The former Nigerian finance minister joins South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee in the last stage, assuring that the next director-general will be a woman.

Both women were picked from a group of five that included Kenya’s Amina Mohamed and the UK’s Liam Fox.

The WTO’s members are set to vote on a director-general after consultations with various internal bodies running until October 27.

Ambassador David Walker, chairperson of the general council, said today that the ultimate objective of the selection process is to make sure that the head of the global trade body is chosen by consensus.  

“Our aim continues to be to encourage and facilitate the building of consensus among members, and to assist in moving from this final slate of two candidates to a decision on appointment,” he said during today’s announcement.

Okonjo-Iweala is an economist and international development expert, known in Africa for her time as Nigeria’s minister of finance under former presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan and as managing director of the World Bank.

She sits on several boards including the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) and the African Risk Capacity.

She describes herself as “the only candidate working at the intersection of trade and public health”. She has pledged to reform the WTO’s dispute settlement system and update its rules to meet new economic and technological challenges. 

Her success in the penultimate round has boosted hopes that the Geneva-based organisation will be led by an African.

If Ngozi makes it, it will demonstrate a certain realignment of the multilateral power dynamics as Africa has been up to now excluded from key economic and financial institutions leadership,” says Carlos Lopes, former executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

“This coming at a time when the continent is embarked on an ambitious free-trade agenda at odds with renewed protectionist attitudes is telling. To have an African that clearly defends the continent’s ambition in this sphere selected to lead would be significant.”

However, there is little to divide the two candidates and it is expected to be a close contest.

The US is the “biggest unknown” in terms of preferences as both women can offer something to Washington, Lopes said.

Africa had previously failed to unite around one candidate while the votes were broadly split between regions among Okonjo-Iweala, Kenya’s Amina Mohamed and Egypt’s Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh.

Now that only one African candidate remains, the division is expected to give way to the universal support of Okonjo-Iweala, boosting her chances of being elected.

“I believe the odds are in favour of Ngozi,” says Lopes.

In a tweet, Okonjo-Iweala thanked Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari and WTO members for their support of her candidacy. 

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