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WTO panel recommends Okonjo-Iweala for top post

Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala received a key endorsement Wednesday from the World Trade Organization’s selection committee, moving her a step closer to becoming the WTO’s first female director-general, people familiar with the matter said.

The panel of three senior WTO ambassadors told Okonjo-Iweala that she had a wide margin of support and is best poised to command a consensus from the organization’s 164 members, according to the people, who declined to be identified because the discussions are confidential.

The recommendation helps Okonjo-Iweala clear one of the final hurdles in a complex and lengthy process aimed at naming the next leader of the WTO during the most turbulent period of its 25-year existence.

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, twice served as Nigeria’s finance minister and has experience working at international governance bodies as a former managing director of the World Bank and as a chair at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

Okonjo-Iweala campaigned as a WTO outsider and a reformer who told Bloomberg she plans to bring a “fresh set of eyes” to a deeply dysfunctional organization.

“I’m known as a strong reformer,“ she told Bloomberg in an interview. “My whole career at the World Bank has been involved with reforms in countries that have been beneficial.”

Looking ahead, the WTO’s leadership selection process is either nearing an end or it’s about to get messy.

Delegates for the members are expected to hold a general council meeting in the coming days to make a formal decision to determine if there is indeed consensus support for Okonjo-Iweala.

It is possible that the process may drag out if nations like the U.S. decide to oppose a decision to appoint Okonjo-Iweala.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has pushed for South Korea’s candidate, Yoo Myung-hee, even though Okonjo-Iweala gained U.S. citizenship in 2019.

Sources close to Lighthizer say he views Okonjo-Iweala as being too close to pro-trade internationalists in Washington like Robert Zoellick, a former USTR who worked with Okonjo-Iweala when he was president of the World Bank.

An impasse in the WTO leadership race wouldn’t likely bother President Donald Trump, who has blasted the Geneva-based organization as a tool for globalists who allowed China’s economic rise to go unchecked.

If Trump wins the U.S. election next week, his aides have indicated they plan to continue to reshape the WTO with a narrower scope to resolve trade disputes.

If it’s not possible for the general council to agree on a consensus candidate, WTO members can consider the possibility of recourse to a vote as a last resort by a procedure to be determined at that time. Such a development would be unprecedented for the WTO.

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