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Okonjo-Iweala to take over as WTO chief within days

Vaccine distribution, fishing subsidies and e-commerce agreement top the priority list for new the director-general

On 5 February, the race to lead the WTO ended, leaving Nigeria's former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the sole remaining candidate. Early in the day South Korea announced that its candidate Trade Minister, Yoo Myung-hee, who had been backed by the Trump administration, was dropping out (AC Vol 61 No 22, One last hurdle, Vol 61 No 20, Amina misses out again & Vol 61 No 14, At cross purposes on world trade).

Journalists in Seoul reported the decision had been made in 'close consultation' with the new US administration. Later in the day, the United States trade representative office announced that President Joe Biden's administration would give its 'strong support' to Okonjo-Iweala as WTO director-general. 

With support from China, the European Union, and most of the body's 164 members, Okonjo-Iweala's appointment is set be confirmed within days, a diplomat in Geneva told Africa Confidential. The next step is for WTO General Council Chairman David Walker to convene a meeting of members to confirm the choice.

Okonjo-Iweala will take over an organisation that has been paralysed by the US-China trade war and by galloping economic nationalism. Her best hope is that the US's promised return to multilateralism under the new occupant of the White House will allow for a fresh dialogue to resolve the impasse over the WTO's trade dispute system. 

It will test Okonjo-Iweala's mediation skills. In 2019, the US blocked the appointment of new judges to the WTO appellate body which is meant to settle trade disputes. US politicians, both Democrat and Republican, saw the WTO court's rulings as impinging on US sovereignty and taking too soft a line on China's state capitalist trade tactics. Africa is becoming an important arena for US-China trade and investment rivalry.

Vaccine distribution and production and how the WTO could help speed them up will be headline tasks for Okonjo-Iweala, given her experience as chair of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, which led the Covax initiative. After months of vaccine nationalism among the richest countries, Covax has been sidelined, with industry sources suggesting that Africa and other developing regions are unlikely to get enough vaccines to reach herd immunity until next year.

Fishing rights are also on the urgent list with Okonjo-Iweala targeting an early international accord to cut industry subsidies that have helped decimate fishing stocks around Africa and other developing regions. To get that, she would need to persuade China and Spain to change tack but it could be a key step in rebuilding co-operation at the WTO.

Her other priority is the still more formidable one of an international accord for the global e-commerce market, worth over $25 trillion, and already bifurcated into Chinese and US zones of influence. Here too, there is an important African angle as investments in digital companies and electronic payments are growing exponentially despite the current economic malaise in other sectors.

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