The expected appointment of Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as the next Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, (WTO) will have to wait a little further as the WTO General Council on Friday postponed indefinitely its special meeting earlier scheduled for Monday, November 9, to complete the process.
On October 29, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director (Operations) at the World Bank, moved a step closer to actualising her ambition as she fulfilled the 19th of the 25 step procedures for the appointment of WTO DG contained in WTO Agreement of January 20, 2003.
The 19th step of the procedures requires the Chairman of the WTO DG selection panel (Troika) to submit to the WTO General Council the name of the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommend his or her appointment.
On that day, pursuant to the stipulated procedures, the WTO Troika presented Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the preferred candidate for the WTO top office over her only remaining opponent in the race and South Korea’s former Minister of Trade, Yoo Myung-hee.
The Troika said Mrs Okonjo Iweala, who led Nigeria through varying degrees of fiscal reforms, garnered overwhelming backing from the vast majority of the 164 member-countries of the global trade group.
The selection panel said the Nigerian candidate got the support of both developed and developing countries across the world, including the European Union, Africa, Caribbeans, Japan, India, Indonesia and China at the end of the final stage of the consultative process.
With her presentation, the General Council, which is the highest decision-making body of the WTO after the Ministerial Conference, should have gone ahead to complete the appointment process, by announcing Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala’s appointment.
Under the WTO rules of procedure, all decisions are by consensus of all member-countries. However, at the expiration of the deadline set to reach a consensus, the United States blocked the process by holding a dissenting opinion in support of the Korean candidate.
Consequently, in line with Paragraph 20 of the WTO procedures, the only option left to complete the appointment process was a recourse to voting as a last resort to resolve the stalemate.
The special meeting of the WTO General Council where the voting exercise was to be conducted was scheduled for Monday, November 9 in Geneva.
But, a statement from the General Council Chair, David Walker, on Friday, announced that the meeting had been postponed indefinitely.
The Statement reads: “As you know, at the meeting of the Heads of Delegation on 28 October, in accordance with the Procedures for the Appointment of Directors-General adopted by the General Council and contained in WT/L/509, and the agreed modalities for Phase 3 of the process in JOB/GC/243, I and the Facilitators Ambassador Dacio Castillo, Chair of the Dispute Settlement Body and Ambassador Harald Aspelund, Chair of the Trade Policy Review Body reported the outcome of the third and final round of consultations in the process of appointment of the next Director-General, and announced that we were submitting the name of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommending her appointment by the General Council as the next Director-General of the WTO.
“I also announced that a special Meeting of the General Council would be convened to take a formal decision on the appointment of the next Director-General, and a meeting was subsequently convened for 9 November for this purpose with an Airgram circulated to delegations in WTO/AIR/GC/33 which, as you have seen, contains a single item concerning the Appointment of the next Director-General.
“It has come to my notice that for reasons, including the health situation and current events, delegations will not be in a position to take a formal decision on 9 November.
“I am therefore postponing this meeting until further notice during which period I will continue to undertake consultations with delegations,” the statement said.
Why meeting was postponed
A reliable source close to the WTO General Council in Geneva said the decision to postpone the meeting indefinitely was informed by two unrelated developments, including what the General Council Chair referred in his statement as “current events”.
Apart from the worsening conditions relating to the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, based on recent measures adopted in Brussels, the source who requested that his identity should not be revealed as he was not authorized to speak officially on the matter, said the postponement was not unconnected with the outcome of the U.S. elections last Tuesday.
The source said the opposition by the U.S. government of the appointment of Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala as the WTO DG in preference of her South Korean opponent, despite her current status as a U.S. citizen, flows from the current unrelenting trade wars between the U.S. and China.
With China among the countries pledging support for Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s emergence, close watchers of the WTOs politics said it was inconceivable to think the U.S. under President Trump would shift grounds to accommodate her aspiration, despite being the clear favourite in the race.
With available results in the U.S. elections pointing in the direction of Mr Trump’s exit, the source said it was strategic for the November 9 meeting to be shifted forward to give time for the political wind in the U.S. to blow over and a new political dispensation with a fresh economic focus settles in office before the appointment process is reinstated.
The postponement, the source said, may have been instigated by the strong lobby and pressures by the African Group, consisting African Ambassadors in Geneva rooting for Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala, in concert with the African Union, who believe more time was needed to consult widely to secure consensus and bring all on board, including the U.S.
“It was clear they were not going to secure consensus on Monday, considering what is happening. To avoid providing an opportunity for all sorts of persons to cash in on the situation and cause more confusion, it was strategic to postpone the meeting to give time for further consultations pending when everyone is sure the environment is stable enough to reach a consensus,” the source said.