Critics endorse Nigeria’s WTO nominee over negotiating skills, outsider advantage

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director at the World Bank, participates in a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative, in New York, September 23, 2009. About 1,200 participants including heads of state, business leaders, humanitarians and celebrities will attend the fifth annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) which started on Tuesday. REUTERS/Chip East (UNITED STATES POLITICS BUSINESS)

WTO has never been led by an African or by a woman before

  • Okonjo-Iweala says WTO challenges “not insoluble”

  • Stresses need for reform, including of appeals court

By Emma Farge

GENEVA, June 30 (Reuters) – Nigeria’s candidate to head the World Trade Organization (WTO) said she feels “strong support” from Africa and expects African leaders to unite behind one candidate as sources following the race said she is gaining broader backing.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance and foreign minister who has more than 25 years experience at the World Bank, is seeking to replace Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo who announced last month he would step down on Aug. 31, in a surprise move at a critical juncture for the body.

Africa has struggled in the past to unite behind one candidate and the Geneva-based watchdog has never been led by someone from the continent before, nor by a woman, and there is broad feeling it is Africa’s turn.

“I cannot presume for any group but I can tell you that I feel strong support from the region,” she told Reuters late on Monday, saying she was having “very constructive conversations” among the 164 members.

One delegate described her as “definitely the favourite”, especially since European Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan dropped out, and likely to be acceptable to China and the United States.

Egypt’s Hamid Mamdouh, a former WTO official, is also a candidate and was endorsed by the African Union months ago, before Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy was announced.

For a Factbox of candidates, click here:

The new head’s in-tray includes overseeing reforms, clinching a long-overdue multilateral trade deal, coping with a post-COVID recession as well as growing protectionism and U.S.-China trade tensions.

“The problems are very deep and challenging but they are not insoluble,” she said, stressing the need for reform including of the body’s top court which is a priority for Washington.

Critics say she does not have enough direct trade experience but she says being an outsider is an advantage. Backers laud her negotiating skills, including a deal to cancel billions of dollars of Nigerian debt.

“Over my long career I’ve managed to build relationships and platforms at levels high enough to be able to dialogue with the right people,” she said.

Nominations are open until July 8 at the WTO, which traditionally chooses a chief by consensus.

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