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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s bid to lead the WTO – Five things to know

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Wednesday, 10 June 2020 10:59, updated on Thursday, 11 June 2020 17:14

World Economic Forum in Africa
Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attends the World economic forum on Africa in Abuja, Nigeria, Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Development economist and former two-time Finance Minister of Nigeria, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has been nominated as the candidate for the job of Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, following the abrupt resignation of Roberto Azevêdo. But her nomination comes after President Muhammadu Buhari had already nominated Yonov Frederick Agah. Why the sudden switch?

The role of Director-General of the WTO has never been held by an African, and although others, such as Kenya’s Amina Mohamed, are noted as viable options, a solid case can be made for Okonjo-Iweala as being the strongest African candidate.

READ MORE Will Kenya’s Amina Mohamed be the WTO’s first African leader?

1. Okonjo-Iweala: the curriculum vitae

Okonjo-Iweala has over 30 years of development and financial expertise under her belt. Her 25-year career with the World Bank Group culminated in her rise to the second top position in the organisation as Managing Director, from 2007-2011.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Finance (twice) in Nigeria, she made history by being the first woman to hold these positions.

In the latter role, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club of Creditors that led to the wiping out of $30bn of Nigeria’s debt.

During her second term, she was responsible for leading reform that enhanced government transparency and strengthened institutions against corruption, including the implementation of the GIFMS (Government Integrated Financial Management System).

Her international lobbying ability, and her reform credentials, make her a compelling candidate.

2. Nigeria’s ‘new’ candidate

Despite her impressive CV, Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination is a surprise to all, as President Muhammadu Buhari had already proposed another candidate for the position: Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah, the country’s permanent representative at the WTO, and a deputy director-general for the organisation.

This decision was repealed, with the federal government releasing a statement: “His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, has approved the nomination of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to replace Ambassador Agah, as Nigeria’s candidacy for the position of the Director-General…”

Okonjo-Iweala and Buhari have been political enemies in the past. So her candidacy begs the question of what has changed for the president. Some suspect that Buhari’s recently appointed chief-of-staff, Ibrahim Gambari, is behind this proposal.

READ MORE Nigeria: Buhari’s new chief of staff faces toughest crisis since civil war

Gambari understands the workings of the United Nations system the US government. Her nomination is the best chance for another Nigerian to be in the upper echelons of a top international institution.

READ MORE AfDB: The “Real” Geopolitics of the Adesina Affair

3. Africa not impressed

A more significant challenge remains to Okonjo-Iweala than convincing Buhari to back her: the other African candidates.

Following Nigeria’s decision to replace its initial nomination with that of Okonjo-Iweala, the Egyptian government published a communiqué on 5 June 2020 to the Permanent Missions of the WTO Member States of the Ministerial Committee on Candidatures stating that Abuja’s decision to withdraw Agah’s candidature meant Nigeria had forfeited its chance to participate in the race.

According to rules for nominating a candidate for the top job at the WTO, countries have to officially put forward their choice as per the allotted window of time and according to regulations described in the document WT/L/509.

In this case, on 20 May 2020, General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand informed members that the appointment process for the next Director-General would begin on 8 June with nominations accepted until 8 July.

With Kenya already touting Amina Mohamed as a candidate – a very strong contender given she nearly got the role last time – Egypt’s chance of grabbing the top position for its own Abdel Hamid Mamdou, makes it an even tougher race with Okonjo-Iweala now in the running.

Then there is the added wrinkle of the governance furore at the African Development Bank.

Okonjo-Iweala has been a long-term supporter of Akinwumi Adesina, the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) at the centre of a governance scandal, and has very publically backed him in his current travails.

4. Finding unity to support a candidate

The African caucus in Geneva will have a difficult decision to make: they need to rally behind a single candidate and then separately cast their vote.

Privately, a member of the caucus told The Africa Report that they were already exhausted after the fight over the WHO and attempts by the US to go after it’s leadership; “So soon after the Tedros affair!”

The structure of the WTO is similar to that of the WHO, in which each country gets an equal vote within the General Assembly.

A structure that is not favoured by the US, which prefers a situation whereby it can have more input than others. But if the African caucus comes together and speaks with one voice, it could very well increase the probability that an African gets the top role at the WTO.

READ MORE Coronavirus: ‘People’s vaccine’ campaigners claim victory at WHO summit

Already the US has shot itself in the foot for any true chance at being seriously considered after its efforts at the WHO’s general assembly to ensure any vaccine against COVID-19 is not funded as a public good.

The ongoing trading war between China and the US also means both countries will not be able to offer advice to others if they can’t even take care of their own problems.

READ MORE US-China trade deal: 3 fundamental issues remain unresolved

5. What role for the WTO in the new world order?

The trends of greater economic nationalism and self-reliance had been visible well before coronavirus hit, with the UK’s decision to exit the European Union just one manifestation of tension with current international political architecture.

The pandemic has accelerated these nationalist currents, with the US-China trade war spilling over into something more volatile.

How does the World Trade Organisation exist in such a climate?

It could take on greater responsibilities and become a real forum for mediating the tectonic changes heralded by China’s rise.

Having an African at the helm could also be a real boon for the continent in this scenario — and the job itself would be high-profile and influential.

Or a post-COVID world that will see increasing domestication of supply chains could see the WTO diminish in importance, with bilateral relations the order of the day; history buffs will remember the US isolationist period of the 1920s.

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