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Benin drops its WTO candidate in support of Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala

By Matthieu Millecamps
Posted on Monday, 15 June 2020 15:10

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Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance of Nigeria, attends a panel session at the 44. Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Keystone,Jean-Christophe Bott)

Benin has pulled Éloi Laourou out of the running and is now backing the nomination of Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the job of Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Patrice Talon announced the decision, which is set to be made public early this week, to Muhammadu Buhari.

The Beninese candidate Éloi Laourou is no longer in the running to take over the post of Brazilian national Roberto Azevêdo as Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Benin, which announced the withdrawal of Laourou’s candidacy to its partners at the International Organisation of La Francophonie within the WTO in a letter dated 12 June, has also decided “to support the candidacy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in the person of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.”

‘The best credentials’

The news, expected to be formally made public early this week, was confirmed by a source within the Beninese government.

“We’ve reviewed the candidates and it’s clear that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has the best credentials to win the nomination for Africa once and for all,” our source said.

According to our sources, the President of Benin, Patrice Talon, spoke with his Nigerian counterpart, Muhammadu Buhari, on Friday to announce his decision and explain the reasons behind it.

Benin’s reversal is particularly surprising given that relations with its Nigerian neighbour have been tense over the past few months, owing to Nigeria’s decision to close its borders last August and subsequent refusal to reopen them.

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

Is Benin’s backing of the Nigerian candidate a sign of its willingness to normalise relations with its neighbour?

“No. It’s merely proof that Nigeria is, and remains, one of Benin’s privileged partners. And the objective is clearly to produce the best African candidate possible. When it comes to the WTO, Talon feels that Dr Okonjo-Iweala is in the best position to win. If we thought that the Egyptian candidate, Abdel Hamid Mamdouh, had the best chance, then we would have opted for him instead,” our source said.

READ MORE Egypt’s Abdel Hamid Mamdouh bid for the WTO – Five things to know

Laourou, a career diplomat and the current Ambassador of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations Office and other International Organisations based in Geneva, announced his bid for the nomination in mid-May. He has since been waiting on the Beninese government to officially back his candidacy.

In search of a consensus

This decision comes at a time of special circumstances. A few weeks prior to Azevêdo’s surprise resignation, announced in mid-May – one year before the end of his term of office – African heads of state had reiterated their desire to nominate a single candidate from the continent to take over the lead role at the WTO during its thirty-third African Union Summit, held in Addis Ababa on 10 February.

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

In the letter from the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations Office and other International Organisations based in Geneva, dated 12 June and addressed to the diplomats of OIF member states, the Beninese authorities insisted on this point.

Their decision, they wrote, “is inspired by the high sense of seeking consensus around a candidate which will be endorsed by the African Union.”

However, with the withdrawal of Laourou’s bid, a consensus has yet to be found. Besides Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala, two other African candidates are still in the running: Kenya’s Amina Mohamed and Egypt’s Abdel Hamid Mamdouh.

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