Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a step closer to becoming director-general of the World Trade Organization after South Korea’s candidate quit the race following months of uncertainty over the body’s leadership.
Yoo Myung-hee, the South Korean trade minister who had not stood down from the race despite weaker backing than her rival last year, said on Friday the future of the WTO had become “uncertain” because of the prolonged leadership battle.
The move paves the way for Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister who battled corruption in her country, to be the first WTO leader from Africa. But her appointment will still require US approval.
Yoo, the only candidate still serving as a trade minister, said her decision was made in “close consultation” with the US.
“South Korea will actively contribute to reaching consensus for the next WTO chief and co-operate with her and participate in the WTO reform process,” Yoo said.
A spokesperson for Okonjo-Iweala said she “congratulates Yoo Myung-hee on her long campaign and welcomes South Korea’s commitment to rebuilding and enhancing multilateralism. There is vital work ahead to do together”.
Okonjo-Iweala “looks forward to the conclusion of the director general selection process”, the spokesperson said. “The WTO must turn its focus to the Covid-19 pandemic and global economic recovery. Dr Okonjo-Iweala is eager to focus on the many needed reforms at the WTO. She is humbled by the support she has received from WTO members and of champions in Nigeria and other parts of the world.”
The Geneva-based body, tasked with preserving free and non-discriminatory trade, has been without a director-general for months after Roberto Azevêdo’s early departure last year.
The leadership battle was complicated when the US refused to accept Okonjo-Iweala and said it would only support Yoo. The selection of a new leader requires all WTO members to agree. This dismayed European diplomats who have been trying desperately to repair the struggling organisation.
The decision comes amid hopes from many countries that the new Biden administration would keep its election pledge to re-establish Washington’s support for multilateral institutions.
Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative under former president Donald Trump and a long time WTO critic, said last month that Okonjo-Iweala had “no experience in trade at all”.
Okonjo-Iweala is also a former World Bank managing director and chair of the board of Gavi, the UN-backed vaccine alliance that is now playing a central role in the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
She would be the first woman to lead the organisation that is made up of representatives of 164 different jurisdictions.
The failure of the South Korean candidate to step down earlier was criticised by other member countries, which feared the organisation would be damaged further. Several diplomats have told the Financial Times that the credibility of Asia’s fourth-biggest economy was also being questioned because of the process.