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Published On: Mon, Jun 15th, 2020

The race for the World Trade Organisation Director-General’s post

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By Oshikoya Adetayo Oluwaranti

Moreover, several names from Africa that have been floated for the position like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt, Eloi Laourou of Benin Republic and Amina Mohammed of Kenya – being four in total indeed shows that there is a feeling among the comity of nations that Africa is due for the position.
The announcement by the current W.T.O Director-General, Mr. Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo on 14 May 2020 that he would be stepping down from his position on 31 August 2020 came as a surprise to the international community bearing in mind his tenure would elapse next year, precisely 31 August 2021. One would expect to be the only national from South America and by extension Latin America to head the multilateral organisation that has been predominantly dominated by Europe in times past; he would at least complete his tenure. Perhaps the U.S.-China trade war, Corona Virus pandemic amongst others could have informed his decision for stepping down.
The selection of a Director-General is a herculean task as it requires consensus among members which total one hundred and sixty-four (164) as there is no vote. The task becomes herculean due to the fact several interests are at play especially by the big-wigs in the organisation on who their preferred candidate should be, thus making consensus a difficult one to reach. The scenario of Renato Ruggiero; Carlos Salinas; Kim Chul-Su in 1995 and Mike Moore; Supachai Panitchpakdi in 1999 indeed lays credence to the fact of the difficulty in appointing a DG.
The General Council Chair, David Walker informed members on 20 May 2020 that process for the appointment of the next DG would formally commence on 8 June 2020 with nominations accepted from that date till 8 July. Candidates would thereafter be invited to speak with members at a special General Council meeting to present their views and take questions from them. Walker along with chairs from Dispute Settlement Body and Trade Policy Review would then be tasked with the huge responsibility of building consensus among members and possibly revising candidates list to a reduced number. A consensus candidate would then be recommended by the three chairs before the General Council formally accepts.
Appointing the new DG is however going to be an interesting one this year as the body only has three months to produce a successor as against nine months, only thanks to Azevedo’s announcement of his premature end to his tenure. It is a sure fact that several consultations and lobbies would become intense in the coming months in Geneva on who clinches the post and the onus lies on the respective candidate’s home governments and indeed regions and allies to do their homework.
Africa as a continent is yet to produce a DG in the twenty-five years history of the organisation, so as North-America and Middle-East, however African nations as well as their apologist in the W.T.O. believe it’s time the continent gets a hold at the helms of affairs in the secretariat. Although there is another argument by some within the W.T.O. that it is the turn of the developed countries to provide the candidate for the position, simply because the last four appointments have rotated among developed and developing countries. While this argument appears to be valid as seen in the fact that Mike Moore from New Zealand, a developed nation held the position from 1999-2002; Supachai Panitchpakdi from Thailand, a developing nation held the position from 2002-2005; Pascal Lamy from France, a developed nation held the position from 2005-2013; with the incumbent, Roberto Azevedo from Brazil, a developing nation holding the position since 2013, the argument can be indeed said to be one that is selfish and inconsiderate. The argument appears selfish and inconsiderate due to the fact that the advocators fail to realise or perhaps have suddenly developed ‘amnesia’ that prior to Moore appointment in 1999, Peter Sutherland and Renato Ruggiero from Ireland and Italy respectively, both from developed nations had filled the position from 1995, the year W.T.O. was born-­­ with Sutherland being head of the organisation since 1993 under the defunct G.A.T.T. (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) with tenure entering into the newly formed W.T.O.- up till 1999. The precursor organisation to the W.T.O. – G.A.T.T., all had leadership from the developed world since its inception in 1948 (Eric Wyndham from the United Kingdom; Olivier Long from Switzerland; and Arthur Denkel from Switzerland), hence making their argument baseless.
In times past in the history of the organisation, fewer candidates from Africa have been nominated but failed to cross the hurdle of clinching the DG’s post. Hassan Abouyoub of Morocco contested with Ray McLaren, Mike Moore and Supachai Panitchpakdi in 1999. Jaya Krishna Cuttaree of Mauritius contested with Carlos Perez del Castillo; Luiz Felipe de Seixas Correa and Pascal Lamy in 2005. The year 2013 was a much different scenario as it saw an upsurge in the number of Africans nominated which included Alan John Kwadwo Kyerematen of Ghana and Amina Mohammed of Kenya who both contested against Roberto Azevedo; Mari Elka Pangestu; Ahmad Thougan Hindawi; Tim Groser; Anabel Gonzalez; Herminio Blanco and Taeho Bark.
Recent turn of events in the international system such as the friction between the U.S. and China; the European Union and U.K.; and the current DG hailing from Latin America make analysts believe with this article following suit that Africa’s best shot at clinching the W.T.O. top spot appears to be now and must do everything in her power to achieve it. Moreover, several names from Africa that have been floated for the position like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt, Eloi Laourou of Benin Republic and Amina Mohammed of Kenya – being four in total indeed shows that there is a feeling among the comity of nations that Africa is due for the position. Three names from Europe have been flouted which includes Arancha Gonzalez Laya from Spain, Phil Hogan from Ireland, Peter Mandelson from the United Kingdom. Jesus Seade Kuri, a Mexican from North-America and by extension Latin-America remains the only candidate to declare from that region as at writing this article.
Despite the fact that Africa should be expected to field a sole candidate she would support unanimously for the post, that doesn’t prevent more than one candidate from the region from being nominated, as criteria for being eligible for nomination hinges on the backing from the candidate’s home government. Despite the freedom, having multiple candidates could prove counter-productive especially if developed nations unite around their own candidate. Africa needs to sort and put her house together especially now that she could clinch the position and not make the strategic blunder of fielding multiple candidates which would divide support as could be seen in 2013 between Kyerematen of Ghana and Amina Mohammed of Kenya- both failed to pass the first hurdle among the rounds of establishing a consensus candidate. Based on the names flying around from the African Continent thus far as at writing this article, it is the argument of this write up that Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala remains the better candidate Africa has to offer and must thus be heavily backed by the continent unanimously in order to clinch the position of the D.G.
Although not a written law, it appears a common belief and acceptance by member nations that the post of the DG should be filled by an individual with a higher political profile and background as against technical or diplomatic background. This is not to say being a technocrat doesn’t qualify one for the position but simply having such background is not adequate enough. All previous DG’s from the birth of the organisation in 1995 all had political background except the incumbent (Azevedo) who prior to his appointment hadn’t taken up a political post. It is seen in some quarters by analyst that his lack of political experience and clout prevented him from resolving the trade war tensions that has escalated between the U.S. and China which doesn’t seem to abate anytime soon.
From the aforementioned criteria and taking a look at the candidates from Africa, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala fits the profile; she served as Minister of Finance and Economy in Nigeria from July 2003 till June 2006, while also heading the Presidential Economic Team responsible for implementing a comprehensive home-grown economic reform program; she served as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nigeria from June till August 2006 and also returned as Minister of Finance in 2011. Despite her political background, she remains one of the brightest technocrats to come out of the African continent as she served as Managing Director at the World Bank where she had the oversight responsibility for the bank’s portfolio in Africa, South-Asia, Europe and Central-Asia; and also spearheading several World Bank initiatives to assist low-income countries. In terms of negotiating prowess and panache required for a trade negotiator, she has proved herself worthy as can be seen in the role she played leading the Nigerian team in cancellation of 60% of her external debt with the Paris Club.
Oshikoya Adetayo Oluwaranti can be reached on
A critical look into other candidates from the African continent shows the political background pre-requisite needed to attain the post is lacking in their Curriculum Vitae. Eloi Laourou, the candidate from Benin Republic being an accomplished diplomat in his own right with thirty years of experience doesn’t have a political background experience. Among his stints as a technocrat includes: serving as Deputy Permanent Representative of Benin Republic to the U.N.; Deputy Director of the European Department of Benin’s Foreign Affairs Ministry; and currently serving as Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Benin to the U.N. and other organisations in Geneva, including the W.T.O. Hamid Mamdouh, another candidate from Egypt is a lawyer by profession with experience as a trade lawyer, member of the W.T.O. secretariat and trade negotiator for Egypt; his flaw also is the fact that he does not have political experience despite his selling point being the fact that he joined G.A.T.T. in 1990- precursor organisation to the W.T.O.- and had served as trade negotiator for Egypt before joining.
Amina Mohammed, the Kenyan is an outstanding technocrat also in her own right with stints in public and foreign service. Having held several positions at the U.N, and the W.T.O. between 2000 and 2006, of which she once chaired the General Council of W.T.O. in 2005, she unlike the other two candidates from Africa has a political background. She served as cabinet secretary for foreign affairs in her homeland in 2013; served as cabinet secretary for education in 2018; and currently serving as cabinet secretary for sports, heritage and culture.
Having ascertained the political background of the various African candidates in respect to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy from the profiling above, one can say only Amina Mohammed fits the bill having gotten political experience and thus a good challenger for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Despite Amina’s political experience, Iweala’s cutting edge over her rival is seen in her influence and popularity in international politics vis-à-vis international economic system. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, who is currently a board member of Twitter, Standard Chartered Bank and also chairs the board of ‘GAVI’- a global vaccine alliance- amongst her numerous international jobs can be said to be an ‘Heavy-Weight’ in relation to Amina Mohammed in the international arena. In fact, it was suggested in some quarters that reason for the Buhari Government replacing Yonov Frederick Agah- who was initially nominated as candidate for Nigeria and currently serving as Deputy Director General in the current regime at the W.T.O.- was because Iweala has a brighter chance due to the influence she possesses over him, not forgetting global respect.

It has also been alleged in some quarters that the candidacy of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is one that is backed by the United States. Having a strong ally like the U.S. with her might, resources, and influence in the international scene is one Africa should not take for granted and must maximise to the fullest. One could raise the issue as to why the U.S. would back an African candidate since a candidate from her region (North-America) is also in the race and thus question the authenticity of her support. Critically, looking at Jesus Seade’s candidacy from Mexico, his quest for the top job in the W.T.O. may prove difficult and one that may not be realised at this period due to the sole reason that he is from Latin America. Despite the fact that both him and Azevedo- the incumbent, come from different regions, which is North and South-America respectively, there is no gainsaying that they come from the same geographical spread which is Latin America, with this not playing in his favour. The W.T.O. member nations would take this into cognizance as they would not want a Latin American taking over from another Latin American in order to pave way for other regions. The U.S. would have conceived this and even if they support Seade, there is every probability consensus may not be reached on his candidacy thus paving the way for them to play the African card since the post of the DG has to be attained on a consensus basis.

Having done the several analyses above, it must be stressed that having an African to head another international multilateral organisation as we are seeing with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in W.H.O. is a thing of pride and one that brings prestige to the continent. Other parties eyeing such role in the continent must be appeased especially Egypt whose recent outbursts and rhetorics since the name of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was forwarded to be running for the post is not encouraging. The A.U. must make sure Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala remains the sole African candidate after July 8 2020 when nomination closes by pressing upon the Egyptian candidate (Mamdouh) into stepping down and prevent the scenario of 2013 when she had two candidates with the continent divided; whilst at that, the A.U. must also make sure the other candidates rumoured from Africa to be in contention do not express their interest formally or officially which could jeopardise her chances. Africa must unite and put her house in order before relying on her allies to play their own part.

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