Africa: Okonjo-Iweala, WTO and Challenges Ahead

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (file photo).
8 June 2020

Calgary — Chukwuma Okonkwo urges Africa to present a united front by rallying behind one candidate.

When the news emerged that President Buhari has nominated Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Nigeria's candidate for the position of the director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), I had mixed feelings. One was a feeling of happiness that, once again, Mr President has demonstrated that he has no rancour against any Nigerian, who is deserving to serve the country at the global stage regardless of his or her party affiliation. The other was a feeling of surprise. My surprise was based on my expectation that Mr Yonov Fredrick Agah, a Nigerian and one of the deputy directors-general at the WTO, who has been in that position since October 2013 when he was first appointed (and reappointed in October 2017), would be the most likely candidate to be nominated. In May 2020, Mr Agah was among the five candidates that some pundits have mentioned to replace Mr Azevedo. But as the news report shows, Mr Agah's candidacy was withdrawn by Mr President and was replaced with Dr Okonjo-Iweala. The reason for that decision is yet unclear. Though, I genuinely believe that Dr Okonjo-Iweala's credentials qualify her for that position, her eventual emergence as the director-general of the WTO would appear to be quite uncertain based on a few factors - such as regional representation argument, country/economic classification argument, and influence of the United States.

As a background, on May 14, 2020, Mr Roberto Azevedo announced at a virtual meeting of all the WTO member states that he would resign his position effective August 31, 2020. This means that by August 31, 2020 his resignation will have taken effect. He was due to complete his second tenure on August 31, 2020.

While regional representation argument may seem strong in favour of Dr Okonjo-Iweala as the next director-general of the WTO, given that African region is yet to produce the head of the WTO, that argument will only remain strong if there are no other candidates from Africa or other regions - such as North America and the Middle East - that have not yet produced the head of the WTO. Among the few names that pundits have recently mentioned include Africans such as Hamid Mamdouh, from Egypt, Eloi Laourou, from Benin Republic, Amina Mohamed, from Kenya. If there is no agreement among African countries to present Dr Okonjo-Iweala as a consensus candidate for the African region, her chances of emerging the next head of the WTO will be dampened.

Nonetheless, the country/economic classification argument seems less strong given that the outgoing director-general is from a developing country - Brazil. The developed countries may argue for a rotation, since country/economic classification was one of the key considerations that saw Mr Azevedo emerge as the director-general in the past year(s). Based on this, there is a natural tendency that the US's influence on the WTO under President Trump will become pronounced during the selection process than in 2013 and 2017, hence that will most likely make the country/economic classification argument prevail in favour of developed countries. Keep in mind that since the WTO was formed in 1995, the US has not produced any candidate to head the WTO. Though it's unclear yet whether the US will nominate an American, perhaps Mr Alan Wolff, who is one of the deputy directors-general at the WTO to be considered to replace Mr Azevedo, however, the likelihood of that nomination by President Trump cannot be undermined because given what we know about Trump, he is full of surprises.

No doubt, the resignation of Mr Azevedo has revealed two key challenges. On one hand is the challenge of choosing, yet another leader for the WTO via consensus. Historically, the election of the director-general of WTO is based on consensus among member states and not on votes. As a result, reaching a consensus among member states on who will lead the WTO is often contentious. In the past, strong considerations have been given to regional representation and classification of economies into developed and developing economies. For example, in 2013, Mr Azevedo's eventual emergence as WTO's director-general was based on regional representation and country/economic classification arguments. As at the time, South America seemed to be well-positioned as a region to produce WTO's director-general, given that two candidates from that region (Brazil and Mexico) were preferred by many countries from the European Union and Africa. A report by The Guardian shows that he was neither the British nor the US's anointed candidate albeit a consensus was eventually reached to choose him because he was perceived by developing countries as their voice at the WTO. Hence, he became the first South American to occupy that position.

On the other hand is the challenge for who emerges as director-general to help the WTO to weather the storm of the global trade crises exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic, and to reconcile the trade war between the USA and China. This challenge is widely acknowledged. For example, Bloomberg's Bryce Baschuk and Jenny Leonard in their article in May 2020 noted that Mr Azevedo's exit came at a very uncertain time when the global economy is suffering from the worst slump since the economic depression of 1930 due to COVID-19, as evident in the low forecasts for global trades and trade policy conflicts across the world. In a similar vein, William Reinsch and John Hoffner from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in their article in May 2020 recognized that a new leadership with a "bold approach to WTO reform" is needed to inoculate a new breath into the already weakened WTO.

Although new information is still unfolding regarding nominations for the next head of the WTO, the window for nomination - until July 8 2020, has presented the African region the opportunity to unite around one candidate in order to present a united front and formidable force during the negotiations for a consensus candidate. As a Nigerian, I can only hope that Dr Okonjo-Iweala will emerge as the next director-general of the WTO.

Chukwuma, author of "Speaking From My Mind," wrote from Calgary

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