Last week, the World Trade Organization (WTO) made history by recommending the first woman who is also the first African woman to lead the world trade governing body for the first time in its formal establishment in 1995. This recommendation comes against the wishes of the biggest economy in the world – America.

The leadership vacuum was created at the WTO after its former head Roberto Azevedo stepped down in August – a year ahead of his time. 

The appointment committee set up by the WTO recommended Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance and foreign minister to replace Roberto Azevedo for the top job. She was singled out for recommendation out of five top candidates including Yoo Myung-hee of the Republic of Korea, Amina C. Mohamed of Kenya, Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Liam Fox of the United Kingdom. 

The recommendation for her nomination to lead the WTO has received overwhelming support from almost all 164-member states except the United States of America, which has indicated its preference for South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee as the best candidate to bring real reform to the body. Even though the nomination process has taken four long months to almost reach a concensus, the USA insists, even after the WTO announcement that it would continue to back the South Korean candidate. 

South Korea's candidate Yoo Myung-hee - Why is the US rejecting the nomination of the first African woman as head of WTO? - Africa6News - Latest breaking news, daily news and hot news in Africa. African politics, African business, African sports, health and technology
South Korea’s candidate Yoo Myung-hee | source: WTO

The US Trade Representative, who advises President Donald Trump on trade policy, said the WTO “must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field”.

The US statement also claimed that Ms Yoo had “distinguished herself” as a trade expert and “has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization. ‘’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 a major reform.” 

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s track record

But when it comes to experience and leadership skills necessary for reform at the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala stands taller than the rest. At age 66, she served as her Nigeria’s first female finance and foreign minister and has left behind a 25-year career as a development economist at the World Bank. She is currently on Twitter’s board of directors, a chairperson of the GAVI vaccine alliance and a WHO’s special envoy for Covid-19.

 No other candidate comes close to her with such an impressive track record in terms of stature and experience, yet the Americans under President Donald Trump are opposed to her nomination. What is the real reason behind US opposition to an historic nomination of an overly qualified first African woman to head the WTO? Is there an ulterior motive behind US opposition?

Many observers have good reasons to believe that the Americans are not looking for a competent head of the WTO. Rather, the USA wants a puppet at the head of the world trading body to do their bidding against other major emerging national economies such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS).

With President Trump’s anti-globalization rhetoric at its peak, the USA is looking for ways and means to renegotiate every possible trade deal with other countries on its own terms outside of the WTO rules of engagement. It has already done so with Canada and Mexico. It is trying to do so with China.

President Trump has in the recent past described the WTO as a ‘horrible’ organization, which has displayed bias towards China. Meanwhile, the USA has managed to block previous appointments to key roles within the WTO. This means that the Trump administration has a fundamental problem with the WTO itself and its current rules of global free trading engagement. They want reform but one that will be in the sole interests of the USA.

South Korea being a known ally or even a puppet state of the USA, Ms Yoo will be a perfect fit for the US agenda at the WTO against China and the BRICS. Otherwise why will the USA insist on supporting South Korea’s candidate even after the committee’s decision to nominate the former Nigerian foreign minister?

Ms Okonjo-Iweala’s leadership at the WTO appears to be a great threat to the agenda of the Trump administration as she has demonstrated over the years as a foreign minister of Nigeria, at the world bank, W.H.O, twitter and other world bodies, to be a woman of integrity and substance with a track record of standing for justice, fairness and accountability at the geopolitical, bilateral and multilateral levels. Obviously, her integrity is what threatens the US trade agenda under President Donald Trump. Unlike the South Korean, the Nigerian will not play puppet to the USA. 

Her appointment will bring great relief to emerging and developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America who are often at the receiving end of unfair international trade deals. With a strong understanding of developing and emerging economies, the African woman as head of the WTO will be in a better position to create a level playing field for world free trade and hold errant economies to account for breaches of the WTO rules without fear or favor. 

Is it not very suspicious that all 164 members of the WTO the USA can see the best candidate in the former Nigerian foreign and finance minister? Since the USA insists on opposing her nomination, some have suggested that her appointment may be in jeopardy. How one nation can jeopardize the collective decision of 164 nations is difficult to imagine. What is however easy to imagine is the possibility of the USA under President Donald Trump pulling out of the WTO outright as a member. Who knows?

It won’t be the first time for the Americans to pull out of a global deal agreed upon by all other nations. 

Not too long ago, the USA under President Donald trump pulled out of the crucial 2016 Paris climate accord also known as UNFCCC which had been ratified by 195 countries. The agreement aims at strengthening the global response to the imminent threat of Climate change by keeping a global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Will the US pull out of the WTO because it has the first African woman as head?

The USA under President Donald Trump also pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement also known as The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which had been signed by 16 countries aimed at nuclear non-proliferation among member states. 

Even much more recently in the midst of the escalating Corona virus global pandemic, President Donald Trump’s US administration notified the US Congress that it has officially withdrawn from the World Health Organization (WHO), as the WHO announced plans to meet with China to firm up plans to investigate the zoonotic source of the outbreak.

Clearly, a history of withdrawals from global bodies has been established by the current US administration whenever these organizations refuse to bow to the USA’s whims and caprices. Will the world trade organization be the next to loose the USA as a member state as a result of its insistence on appointing an experienced African woman with integrity as its head against the wishes of the US administration? Only time will tell.

What is also clear is that the trade war between the USA and China will continue to escalate as long as Donald Trump remains President of the United States. This is because the USA believes that China is not playing by the rules of the WTO as established in the charter. On the other hand, China continues to enjoy a great chunk of global trade as its massive population provides the cheapest source of labour and tax incentives for many multinationals including US tech giants who prefer to outsource much of their manufacturing and assembling to China.

 Indeed, President Trump himself was recently exposed for operating a secret foreign bank account in China despite his overt anti-China rhetoric.  

As the US-China trade war escalates even further, South Korea and Japan will catch the cold as they both play allies to the opposing sides of the trade war with Japan openly supporting China whiles South Korea remains a puppet of the Americans.

The WTO is however thinking ahead as it has called for a meeting on 9 November – hopefully after Donald Trump is out of office – to discuss the next step of the appointment of Ms Okonjo-Iweala as head of the WTO. It is not in doubt that US opposition to her appointment may amount to naught but the USA still wield considerable influence over some of the other nations who might make the final decision. The good news for the African woman is that she has the maximum support of the European Union, a major trading and power block of the WTO.

Though the WTO was formally created in 1 January 1995, its trading system called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) has existed since 1948 and had provided the rules for the system. 

Ms Okonjo-Iweala will definitely have a tough job mediating and negotiating when appointed in the midst of the escalating trade wars and stalled trade talks and ongoing tensions between the US and China. But in her own words, her broad experience in championing reform in other international organizations makes her the right person to help put the WTO back on track. “I am a reform candidate and I think the WTO needs the reform credentials and skills now’’ she recently stated.

 Africa is definitely rooting for Ms Okonjo-Iweala to bring fairness, firmness and justice to a currently unfair world trading system that disadvantages poor and emerging economies whiles unfairly benefiting bigger industrial nations. Africa6News

By: Sacut Amenga-Etego