After nearly six months without a captain, the World Trade Organization looks set to appoint Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as its first female and first African leader next week.
The global trade body announced Tuesday that it would hold a special meeting of its General Council on February 15 “to consider the appointment of the next WTO director-general”.
The announcement comes after US President Joe Biden’s administration last week offered its “strong support” to Okonjo-Iweala, marking yet another sharp split from his predecessor Donald Trump, who had blocked her nomination for months.
Key WTO ambassadors tapped Okonjo-Iweala back in October as the best pick to lead the organisation but Trump’s administration maintained its opposition to her appointment and said it backed her opponent, South Korea’s trade minister Yoo Myung-hee, instead.
Since the WTO makes decisions through consensus among all 164 member states, the US position left the process to replace Roberto Azevedo — who stepped down a year ahead of schedule last August — at a standstill.
Observers suggested that South Korea had long been under pressure from the United States — an ally that has 28,500 troops in the country to defend it from nuclear-armed North Korea — to keep Yoo in the race.
But Seoul suddenly announced last Friday that she was abandoning her bid, just hours before Washington announced its change of position.
With no further obstacles in her path, Okonjo-Iweala is expected to quickly be tapped for the director-general post at Monday’s meeting.
It remains unclear if she will be asked to take the reins immediately or if her term would start at a later date.
Once she does, she will have her hands full.
The crisis-wracked organisation is widely seen as needing reform.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the WTO had grappled with stalled trade talks and struggled to curb trade tensions between the United States and China.
The WTO also faced relentless attacks from Washington under Trump, who, among other things, dealt a death-blow to its dispute settlement appeal system, which stopped working in late 2019.
Twice Nigeria’s finance minister and its first woman foreign minister, 66-year-old Okonjo-Iweala is seen as a trailblazer in her country.
A development economist by training with degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, she also spent a quarter of a century at the World Bank, rising to be managing director and running for the top role in 2012.