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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Still in Line to Lead World Trade Organization, Despite US Opposition 

FILE - Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala poses outside a Nigerian diplomatic residence in Chambesy, near Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 29, 2020.
FILE - Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala poses outside a Nigerian diplomatic residence in Chambesy, near Geneva, Switzerland, Sept. 29, 2020.

Nigerians have expressed confidence that the country's former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, will still become the first African and first woman to lead the World Trade Organization, despite opposition from the United States. The 66-year-old has secured strong backing to become the WTO's director general, but the U.S. this week put its support behind a South Korean candidate.

The race to succeed Brazil's Roberto Azevedo as chief of the WTO took an unexpected turn Wednesday when the United States rejected Nigeria's candidate, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Okonjo-Iweala has gathered support from many WTO member countries, but the U.S. is backing her only opponent, South Korea's Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee, citing her skills and experience in international trade dealings.

But Nigerians continue to stand behind Okonjo-Iweala, who once served as the country's finance minister.

Macro-economic analyst Professor Ken Ife says the U.S. rejection will have no impact on the final decision.

"Fortunately, unlike in the case of World Bank or IMF, where America has overbearing influence, in the case of WTO, it simply has one vote. President [Donald] Trump has spoken but the world has moved in the opposite direction," he said.

But the rejection could extend the selection process for some additional weeks or even longer.

If selected as WTO director general, Okonjo-Iweala will be the first African and woman to head the global trade watchdog. It’s a feat many Africans believe will ensure that the interests of African nations are better represented within the WTO.

Eze Onyekpere, an economic analyst and head of the Center for Social Justice, CSJ, says with an African leading the WTO, Nigeria and the continent will be more aware of trade negotiations, requirements and opportunities.

"The fact that one of our own is there will remind us of what we need to do in a more constant manner and to be able to get proper information at the appropriate time so as to take the opportunity available and take advantage of those opportunities," he said.

Some critics say Okonjo-Iweala lacks the necessary experience in negotiating trade deals.

Onyekpere disagrees with that opinion.

"I know that women by their very nature are usually reconciliatory, they know how to settle disputes and resolve them. And so, I believe that we are going to have a much more harmonious trade relationships across the world," he said.

Ken Ife says whoever emerges as the winner will have huge tasks ahead, including resolving distortions caused by trade clashes between the United States and China.

"These two are the biggest economies in the world and what is going on with them imposing 20 percent, 25 percent tariff and all of that, they're causing so much distortion. One of the things that are the serious complaints against WTO by the American president is that their dispute resolution process is slow. They've been complaining for years on some of those trade violations, and China does not want to know," he said.

The opening for a new WTO chief was created in August after WTO chief Azevedo stepped down a year earlier than expected.

The Geneva-based organization will meet November 9 for discussions on selecting a new leader.

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