Barring unforeseen circumstances, Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Former Minister of Finance looks good to occupy topmost chair at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva.

By Clarice Azuatalam

(Reporting from London)

Lines are falling in pleasant places for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who currently sits on the board of Standard Chartered Bank and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), to clinch the topmost job at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland.

On May 14, 2020, Roberto Azevedo, the current Director General (DG) of WTO who is from Brazil announced that for “family reasons” he will be stepping down from office on August 31, 2020, thus cutting short his second term of office by one year.

The WTO deals with the global rules of trade between nations with its main function being to ensure that global trade flows smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.  Azevedo’s successor will need to steer reforms and negotiations in the face of rising protectionism, a deep recession caused by COVID-19 pandemic and growing trade tensions, notably between USA and China.

However, since nature abhors vacuum, efforts are being made by the 164 member countries of WTO to find a capable person to succeed Azevedo. This time around, members are considering giving Africa a chance as the continent has never produced the DG of the organisation since 1995 when it was formed.

This is why about three Africans who are even staff of WTO quickly indicated interest for the top-notch job. They are: Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt; Eloi Laourou from Republic of Benin and Yonov Frederick Agah, a Nigerian.

A Mexican representative at the organisation, Jesus Seade Kuri is also in the race while South Korea on June 25, 2020 sprung a surprise by nominating Ms. Yoo Myung-Hee, the country’s first female Trade Minister to contest for the job as well.

However, on June 4, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari nominated Okonjo-Iweala as Nigeria’s candidate for the DG of WTO election and asked that Agah be withdrawn without giving reasons. Buhari confirmed this through the Nigerian Embassy and Permanent Mission to the African Union (AU) and

United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The President also appealed to AU Presidents and Diplomats to give strong support to Okonjo-Iweala to win the WTO job.

Buhari’s announcement came as a pleasant surprise to many observers. Reason being that Okonjo-Iweala served as Minister of Foreign Affairs as well as Minister of Finance and Coordinating Economy under the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP)-led governments of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Dr Goodluck Jonathan. By this she is perceived to be a PDP person and considering the way some Nigerians play their politics, the current administration which is led by All Progressives Congress would ordinarily not have anything to do with her.

Apart from getting support from Nigerian government, it is also interesting too, that the President sent out some diplomats to lobby for Okonjo-Iweala at the AU forum. The efforts of this lobby team have paid off because the West African sub-region under its umbrella body, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has ‘anointed’ her for the job.

Niger’s President and current Chair of ECOWAS, Mahamdou Issoufou subsequently issued a statement on June 22, 2020 indicating the community’s support for Okonjo-Iweala. As a result of this, the Beniniose government withdrew the candidacy of Laourou in support of Nigeria’s nominee, thus leaving Mamdouh from Egypt; Kuri from Mexico and the latest entrant to the race, Myung-Hee of South Korea to slog it out with Okonjo-Iweala.

WTO Building

Reacting to the replacement of Agah with Okonjo-Iweala, the Egyptian government argued that her nomination came after the three candidates from Africa had been shortlisted and therefore Nigeria has no candidate.

The office of the Legal Counsel of AU subsequently communicated Nigerian Permanent Mission and AU saying that in July 2019, the Executive Council of AU during its 35th Ordinary Session held in Niamey, Niger asked AU member states to consider presenting candidates for the DG by November 2019 with a view to endorsing one candidate during the February 2020 Ordinary Session.

This was the reason Laourou, Mamdouh and Agah were presented by their governments and subsequently, they were “considered.” The letter also pointed out that the session could not endorse a consensus candidate as was expected. While insisting that the submission of candidates had been closed at the time Okonjo-Iweala was nominated, the counsel stated that “accepting her

would amount to contravening extant rules, especially rules 11 and 12 of WTO.”

The WTO in its own reaction named Okonjo-Iweala among the candidates “whose nominations have been accepted” to contest for its DG position. David Walker, the WTO’s General Council Chair from New Zealand announced that Okonjo-Iweala would be contesting with the Mexican representative, Kuri and Mamdouh of Egypt. It was further stated that nomination would still be open till July 8, 2020.

This extension of nomination time may have informed why Myung-Hee decided to throw her hat into the ring just on June 25, 2020.

However, having been cleared to vie, observers say her chances are high due to the support from ECOWAS countries which has made her “a prophet who is well accepted in her home town.”

They also recall that in March this year, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed Okonjo-Iweala a member of his country’s Presidential Economic Advisory Council (PEAC) which will be discussing sources of growth for the country’s economy and win-win economic interactions within the continent.

Ramaphosa who is also the Chairperson of AU later in April 2020 appointed her and three other persons as special Envoys of the union to mobilise international support for Africa’s efforts to address the economic challenges African countries will face as a result of COVID 19 pandemic.

These two offices, they say will stand her in good stead by making her a known figure to all African member states of WTO adding that “Ramaphosa being the AU Chair, will certainly use his position to campaign for her to all African governments including Egypt.”

Another factor that will work for Okonjo-Iweala who is aged 66 is her global experience. She is an economist and international development expert who has worked as the Managing Director of World Bank. She also has over 30 years experience working in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America.

From 2003 to 2015, when she worked for Nigerian government, she used her negotiating skills to clinch a multi-billion dollar debt relief package for the country.

Additionally, there is a broad support for an African candidate and a woman for that matter, since neither has headed the DG of WTO, “Okonjo-Iweala perfectly fits into these two requirements,” observers say.

For Mamdouh, the Egyptian candidate aged 67, he is the Director of Trade in Services Division of WTO. He was also a Senior Counsellor in the Services Division and Secretary of the WTO Council for Trade in Services since 1995 when the organisation was established.

Prior to the WTO job, he was a member of the Diplomatic Service of Egypt and “as a trained lawyer, legal matters have constituted an important part of his work throughout his career,” they say.

As for the Mexican Kuri, aged 73, he is an economist, diplomat and politician with long history of trade negotiations and management of international financial crises. Since December 1, 2018, Kuri has been Under Secretary for North America in Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Concerning the newest entrant into the contest, Myung-Hee aged 53, she has been a bureaucrat and is the first female Trade Minister of her country, South Korea.

Myung-Hee has been a negotiator, strategist and pioneer in her 25- year career in the trade sector. She has played in the multilateral trade arena from the early days in 1995 when she took charge of WTO affairs in her country’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy through her role as South Korea’s (free trade agreement) FTA strategist.

Recently she served as negotiator of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Korea-China FTA and the critical Korea- US FTA renegotiations among other trade initiatives.

According to observers while not denigrating the opponents of Okonjo-Iweala, a peep into her resume and those of her opponents, shows that she possesses a very robust qualification and job experiences that have exposed her to many international organisations, countries and continents thus making her “the unbeatable candidate in the WTO election which will hold in Geneva, 2021.”  

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