Nigeria's Okonjo-Iweala poised to make history as first black woman to head WTO

Eyes on the WTO: Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
Eyes on the WTO: Nigerian former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Fabrice COFFRINI AFP

The withdrawal of South Korea's Trade Minister from the race to head the World Trade Organization means that Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has served as both foreign and finance minister in Abuja, is now likely to become the body's first female and first African director-general.


South Korea's Trade Minister, Yoo Myung-hee, has abandoned her bid to head the World Trade Organization, following consultation with her chief backer, the United States. No explanation has been offered.

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

Key WTO ambassadors suggested Okonjo-Iweala back in October as the best pick to lead the organisation, but then-US President Donald Trump's administration maintained its opposition to her appointment.

The WTO head is normally chosen by consensus among all 164 member states, so the process was left at a standstill.

Uncertainties remain

Yoo's departure leaves Okonjo-Iweala as the only remaining candidate, but that does not automatically mean the Nigerian will get the job.

"The selection requires consensus, which in practice means that the US must declare that they are joining the consensus around Ngozi," a Western trade diplomat explained.

The US mission in Geneva did not immediately respond to questions about whether Yoo's about-face, coming just two weeks after Joe Biden was sworn in as US president, indicated that Washington had changed its position.

But the Western trade diplomat said it was "easy to conclude that the reason (Yoo) is withdrawing is that the US has signalled it is moving towards doing exactly that."

The next regular meeting of the organisation's General Council, where the leadership issue could be discussed, is set for 1 March.

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