Nigeria’s Iweala Is Majority Choice Of WTO Members & Well Qualified To Lead – WHO Africa Regional Director
Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the regional director for Africa voices support for Iweala
The regional director for Africa of the World Health Organisation, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, voiced the organisation’s support for Iweala.

IBADAN – Nigeria’s former finance minister and board chair of Gavi, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was on track to be named World Trade Organization’s (WTO) first female and first African Director-General (DG) until the US government blocked her appointment, throwing the final decision to a November 9 meeting of the WTO Council of Ministers.

Nigerian government’s official statement on WTO DG election.


Shy of an all-out public confrontation with the US government, African governments and key stakeholders across the continent are subtly pushing back on the decision of representatives of the Trump-led administration to oppose the declaration and emergence of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the elected Director General of the WTO.

In a public statement, the Nigerian government said it will do everything it can to ensure the emergence of Iweala as WTO’s next leader.

“Nigeria will continue to engage relevant stakeholders to ensure the lofty aspiration of her candidate to lead the WTO is realised,” Nigeria’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Ferdinand Nwonye, said in a press release on Thursday.

Iweala secured cross-regional backing from WTO members, with only the United States opposing the consensus at a meeting of 27 delegations on Wednesday.

The stalemate occurred after David Walker of New Zealand and his two co-facilitators in the selection process told the delegations that based on their consultations with all WTO members, Iweala was best poised to receive majority support as its 7th Director-General.

“She clearly carried the largest support by members in the final round and she clearly enjoyed broad support from members from all levels of development and all geographic regions and has done so throughout the process,” Walker was quoted as saying. “I am therefore submitting the name of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommending her appointment by the General Council as the next Director-General of the WTO until 31 August 2024.”

WHO Regional Director for Africa Expresses Support 

Iweala, board chair of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, is also being quietly supported by global health leaders who know that WTO will play a pivotal role in guiding policies about the application of patent-related trade rules for health products in the sensitive COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking on Thursday, World Health Organisation’s Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, has said that she is confident about Iweala’s capacity — and hopeful that the majority choice of WTO’s 164 member governments will ultimately prevail.

Co-facilitators in the selection process to choose the WTO’s next Director-General.

“We believe in her competence and capacity for this position and we wish for an outcome, and resolution that will be based on the outcome of the election, which was an open process as we understand,” Moeti told Health Policy Watch, at a press briefing.

Moeti described Iweala as a strong promoter of global health, experience all the more relevant for navigating the trade organization at a critical moment in the COVID-19 pandemic in which health and trade protocols are inextricably intertwined. 

“I’m certain the WTO will find the means to have the outcome of this election respected and Dr Ngozi confirmed,” Moeti added.  “We will be extremely proud to have the first woman, an African woman, be the head of this very important organisation that is so critical for international trade. We know there are many important changes that need to happen to put in place a framework for the international trade system for countries in Africa to benefit.”

US Government’s Opposition — What’s the Real Source?

Although Iweala has twice served as Nigeria’s finance minister, she is also a citizen of the United States, having spent many years in Washington DC in the senior ranks of the World Bank.

Despite that, the US opposition to her candidacy has been blunt.  On Thursday, the WTO’s formal statement directly referred to the US position, saying that Washington would continue to support the candidacy of Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea.


“The assessment [of the elections committee] was challenged by the United States which said it would continue to support Minister Yoo and could not back the candidacy of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala,” the WTO stated.

Various explanations are emerging regarding the US position. Most revolve around the Trump Administration’s stance regarding specific WTO trade policies — but also extending to the nature of the organization as a whole.

Notably, the US government has been blocking the appointment of new judges to the Appellate Body of the WTO. The Body has seats for six judges but needs a minimum of three to function. 

Since one of the WTO’s most important functions is to resolve trade disputes between countries, through its Appellate Body, these appointments are critical, and by blocking the appointment of new judges, the White House has effectively paralyzed the global organisation.

With a functioning WTO, trade conflicts are resolved with legal arguments but when it is unable to function, conflicting sides may choose to resolve their disagreements by engaging in tariff wars, trade barriers, and beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism — these are approaches that the US government under Trump has preferred since he took office.

US President Donald Trump has been a public critic of the WTO and the global trade system.

“When you listen to the rhetoric from the Trump administration, they argue that the United States is better off in a power-based, law of the jungle system,” said Jennifer Hillman, the senior fellow for trade at the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think the last three years have shown how wrong that is.”

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Keith Rockwell, WTO director of external relations opined that the global trade ecosystem is approaching a point where it could soon prove a counterfactual: “We have the WTO essentially because of economic nationalism, and the lessons of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, and all those destructive policies.”

The US government played a critical role in the founding of the WTO in 1995, when it emerged from the more ad-hoc General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that had governed global trade rules since 1948. Its creation effectively codified the trends of the late 1990s favoring  trade liberalization.

But the Trump administration has embarked on unilateral trade wars thus defeating the original purpose of the WTO, and it appears to be seeking to keep it defeated — at least until the presidential election is completed and a clearer picture emerges regarding who is in charge at the White House.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: ‘I Have the Skills that are Needed’

Despite the US attempt to block at the goal post, Iweala has responded with aplomb, expressing her satisfaction regarding the success and continued progress of her WTO leadership bid.

Writing on Twitter, she said that she was, “Very humbled to be declared the candidate with the largest, broadest support among members and most likely to attract consensus.

“We move onto the next step on Nov. 9, despite hiccups. We’re keeping the positivity going.”

Former World Bank exec, Gavi board chair and Nigeria’s former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Opponents Include US Trade Representative 

Not only the White House, but also U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer’s opposes Iweala’s emergence as the next DG of the WTO, Bloomberg reported, due to his view of her as too close to pro-trade internationalists like Robert Zoellick.

But in Lighthizer’s official statement, he merely cited the US government’s continued support of Republic of Korea candidate Yoo Myung-hee to her 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade-policy maker.

“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,” said Lighthizer.

Iweala has cited her experience at the top at the World Bank and as Nigeria’s finance minister as training enough for the position:

“I am a development economist and you cannot do that without looking at trade. Trade is a central part of development,” Iweala stated. “So, I have been doing it. My whole career at the World Bank, I was working on trade policy reform in middle and low-income countries at the bank.”

She added: “Those who say I don’t have trade, they are mistaken. I think the qualities I have are even better, because I combine development economics with trade knowledge, along with finance, and you need this combination of skills to lead the WTO. I think I have the skills that are needed. I am a trade person.”

Iweala’s emergence as WTO director general would make her the first African as well as the first woman to lead the Organization.

During her career, she served for 25 years at the World Bank, two terms as Nigeria’s finance minister, as well as currently serving as a board chairperson of the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) and a board member of social media giant Twitter.

Another slight on Africa

While African countries remain officially quiet regarding the plight of Iweala, for now, diplomats note that this is not the first time that the continent’s experts will be at loggerheads with the US government.

The US government’s decision to exit from the World Health Organisation (WHO) happened at a time when an African, Ethiopias Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was leading the global health body for the first time.

Iweala is not the first Nigerian, either, to be elected or appointed to a major global role that the Trump Administration has attempted to undermine. A similar development occurred during the re-election of Akinwumi Adesina to lead the African Development Bank earlier this year.

All in all, said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Iweala is “extraordinarily qualified” to lead the WTO.

Image Credits: Paul Adepoju, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abuja, WTO, Wikipedia Commons.

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