Egypt: Okonjo-Iweala, Akinwumi Adesina and Our Friend, Egypt

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (file photo).
opinion

... Nigeria has two irons in the fire at the same time. I bet Egypt knows that as well. And there lies a possible intersection between the contest for the director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the matter at the African Development Bank (AfDB). The move to scuttle the Akinwumi Adesina presidency at the AfDB is still on.

Interesting times, these are for Nigeria, and for us students of international politics. Exciting times almost, even with the high stakes involved. I cannot recollect the last time Nigeria was last in the spotlight on account of her aspiration for a top international position. The Obasanjo bid for the office of the UN secretary-general was definitely one. The 2005 contest for the presidency of the African Development Bank (AfDB), which Nigeria lost to Rwanda was interesting, not for the drama, but for the humbling nature of the defeat.

Just as we were still grappling with developments in the African Development Bank, with Nigeria seemingly headed for a one-on-one with America over a second term for Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, the news came of Nigeria throwing the hat of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in the ring for the office of director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as replacement for Dr. Yonov Frederick Agah, who is serving a second term as deputy director-general at the WTO, having been reappointed for a second four-year term on October 1, 2017.

Just as the move by President Buhari to send a jet to bring Dr. Adesina home from Cote d'Ivoire was a significant show of solidarity and a signal to Africa and the world of an unwavering home support, the announcement of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala was a diplomatic upper-cut by Nigeria that caught many by surprise, not the least Egypt. Interesting coincidence that the Note Verbale from Nigeria was out on the same day the AfDB Board of Governors was meeting. But we will get to that later.

It is interesting to see how things have played out within the twinkle of an eye, with respect to the office of the director-general of the WTO. The current DG is the Brazilian career diplomat, Roberto Carvalho de Azevedo, who is serving a second term, which was to end on September 1, 2021, but who on May 14 made an abrupt announcement of his intention to leave office by August 31, one year before his term is to expire. That explains, in part, the frenzy that has kicked in.

Ordinarily, the process for the election of the director-general of the WTO is one that is usually painstaking, stretching over many months. That, in particular, because the convention favours decision-making by consensus, with emphasis on consultation, with voting only coming as a last resort. At a point, candidates are invited to meet members at a formal General Council meeting. At the end of the consultation process, the chair of the Council, with the support of the facilitators, submits the name of the candidate "most likely to attract consensus", recommending his or her appointment to the General Council. Such is the dislike for voting that it is provided that in the case of "an exceptional departure from the customary practice of decision-making by consensus", it will not be taken as "a precedent in respect of any future decisions in WTO."

... the Okonjo-Iweala candidacy surely packs a punch. A two-time finance minister in Nigeria, with over 30 years experience in international finance and development, she rose to the position of managing director (Operations) at the World Bank. She currently chairs the Board of GAVI and was only recently appointed by the African Union (AU) as special envoy...

Indeed, the process had already started before the announcement of the resignation of Azevedo, with the deadline for the nomination of candidates fixed for July 8. Different candidates had already indicated interest. Early birds included Dr. Agah (Nigeria), Dr. Amina Mohammed (Kenya), Ambassador Eloi Laorou (Benin), Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt) and Lord Peter Mandelson (United Kingdom). Africa, which appears to be favoured, had opened up the process from July to November 2019, and the African Union, at its Executive Council's 36th Ordinary Session held in February, had endorsed the candidates from Benin, Egypt and Nigeria "as the short list for the African candidates to the post of Director General of WTO and REQUESTS the Ministerial Committee on African Candidatures within the International System to consider the matter and report to the Executive Council's 37th Ordinary session with a view to agreeing on a single African candidate."

All the candidates are insiders, except for Lord Mandelson, whose candidacy, in the first place, is not helped by the tenuous relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. They are either working with the World Trade Organisation at the moment or have worked there extensively in the past. Dr. Frederick Agah was appointed as Nigeria's ambassador to the WTO in 2005 and has since then functioned in different capacities there, before he became one of the deputy director-generals in 2013, with the three other ]DDGs from Germany, U.S.A and China. Indeed, Dr. Agah's credentials are solid. He has a PhD in Economics (International Trade), a Master of Business Administration, apart from a Law degree.

But the candidate from Egypt, Hamid Mamdouh, a trade lawyer, has a wider range of extensive experience, having worked in different capacities within the WTO, especially within the Secretariat. He had joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the predecessor to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as far back as 1990, after having served as a trade negotiator for Egypt. He has played up a vision for Africa, which he said has been largely short-changed, hoping that amends can be made as part of the reforms he is proposing. Such is his stature that Egypt must have placed so much confidence in his candidacy, until the introduction of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala by Nigeria threw a spanner in the wheel.

But the Okonjo-Iweala candidacy surely packs a punch. A two-time finance minister in Nigeria, with over 30 years experience in international finance and development, she rose to the position of managing director (Operations) at the World Bank. She currently chairs the Board of GAVI and was only recently appointed by the African Union (AU) as special envoy for mobilisation of financial support for the fight against COVID-19. Even if it is only on account of her visibility and name recognition, not to mention her educational background and extensive experience, it is not difficult to see why Egypt is worried.

But it just happens that it is her quality of candidate that the World Trade Organisation has been desirous of having to help boost her image and push through the much talked about global trade reforms. The Organisation likes to pride itself as one which places competence above geography, but there is little doubt that politics, history and geography do have their places in the scheme of things. Azevedo, who was said to have being the preferred candidate of the developing nations in 2013, when he contested with nine other nominated candidates, while Herminio Blanco Mendoza of Mexico, the preferred candidate of the advanced world, being the last man standing after many rounds of consultation, was the first Latin American to head WTO since its creation in 1995. As a matter of fact, of the 10 directors-general who have run both GATT and WTO, all but one, Supachai Panitchpakdi from Thailand, have been white males from the 'advanced' countries. The Okonjo-Iweala candidacy offers the opportunity for an African and a woman to finally lead the organisation.

Nigeria must tread with caution over these two irons in the fire at the same time. She has to be cautious about how she proceeds, going forward. Nigeria cannot afford and should not approach this with a zero-sum mindset in any way. There has to be incorporated into this a give-and-take, by way of future assuredness for others.

Understandably, Egypt is not happy. But she was definitely over-reaching herself in her Note Verbale by requesting the "Ministerial Committees on Candidatures to officially inform the African Group in Geneva that candidature of Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has been withdrawn and disqualified, and that Mr. Abdulhameed Mamdouh of the Arab Republic of Egypt and Mr. Eloi Laourou of the Republic of Benin are currently the only two endorsed African candidates." She cites a legal opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), purportedly given during the Ambassadorial level Ministerial Committee on Candidatures meeting, which she said was held on June 4, "regarding Nigeria's nomination of a new candidate to the post of WTO-DG, in which the OLC clearly highlighted that - from a legal point of view - such a nomination is not in conformity with the Executive Council decision EX.CL/Dec.1090(XXXVI),since the council's decision has specifically endorsed the three names of candidates as submitted by the Ministerial Committee's report after thoroughly examining the qualifications and professional experience of each of the three above mentioned candidates."

But even if such opinion was given, apart from it just being another opinion with no binding effect, the position canvassed and the premise it rests on have no evidential basis in the document that Egypt makes reference to. There is nothing in the Executive Council decision EX.CL/Dec.1090(XXXVI) that makes mention of candidates by their names or infers that the endorsement decision was only on the basis of the qualifications and experience of these candidates. Rather, the Council simply endorsed "the candidates from Benin, Egypt and Nigeria) as the short list for the African candidates to the post of Director General of WTO." Moreso, the matter was referred to the "Ministerial Committee on African Candidatures within the International System to consider the matter and report to the Executive Council's 37th Ordinary session with a view to agreeing on a single African candidate." It is strange that Egypt will be seeking to abort a process in the hands of a ministerial committee that has not been completed on the strength of her own misunderstanding or a legal opinion purportedly offered at an ambassadorial level meeting.

But it also happens that Nigeria has two irons in the fire at the same time. I bet Egypt knows that as well. And there lies a possible intersection between the contest for the director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the matter at the African Development Bank (AfDB). The move to scuttle the Akinwumi Adesina presidency at the AfDB is still on. The supposed "compromise" decision by the AfDB Board of Governors at its meeting of June 4 for an "independent review" of the Ethics Committee report, which had exonerated Dr. Adesina on all grounds is concerning. The question is: What qualifies anyone to be "a neutral, high-caliber individual with unquestionable experience, high international reputation and integrity"? Who appoints such a person? Who determines the neutrality, integrity and high international reputation of this reviewer?

As it is, the development at the AfDB is one Nigeria now has to manage carefully to ensure that it goes according to plan. Time is not there. This has to be resolved soon enough. All the issues have to be resolved on time before the Annual General Meeting of the bank in August. The fear is that the longer this drags, the easier it is to turn it into a battle for the survival of either one man or the organisation, one which we be difficult to win, if we do not manage things well. It is interesting that the document which Egypt cites is the same one which carries the endorsement of Dr. Adesina for a second term by the African Union.

I have made the case for a strategic alliance involving some key countries to enable Nigeria sail through at the AfDB. Egypt is one of those key countries. Apart from the fact that she has the largest shareholding in Africa, after Nigeria, with 5.649 per cent, she is highly influential across a particular region. Nigeria must tread with caution over these two irons in the fire at the same time. She has to be cautious about how she proceeds, going forward. Nigeria cannot afford and should not approach this with a zero-sum mindset in any way. There has to be incorporated into this a give-and-take, by way of future assuredness for others. In the 2013 contest at the World Trade Organisation, Africa went in with two candidates - Ghana and Kenya. But some would say Latin America had three candidates as well, with Brazil, which eventually won, being the last entry. But the lessons are there to learn from. Africa has a great chance at the WTO. Nigeria has a good chance of pulling through at both ends. But how we manage the process, realising there is an intersection somewhere, is important.

Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Twitter: @simboolorunfemi

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