The Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS) has endorsed the candidacy of the former Coordinating Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, for the World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General elections.
The endorsement by the 15-member-state regional group is a boost to Mrs Okonjo-Iweala candidature in the race following last week's decision by the African Union (AU) to reject her nomination.
The president of ECOWAS, Mahamadou Issoufou, who announced the endorsement in a statement dated June 19, 2020, said the decision was taken based on the authority of the Heads of State and Governments of its member-countries.
He urged other African countries as well as non-African countries to join in endorsing the candidature of the former World Bank's Managing Director, considering the need to field a strong and formidable African representative in the elections.
The ECOWAS president said the endorsement was informed by the communication by the chairman of the General Council of the WTO announcing Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as one of the four candidates nominated by their countries to vie for the position.
In reaching its decision to endorse Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's nomination, Mr Issoufou said ECOWAS took into consideration the fact that since the creation of the WTO no African has assumed the position of DG.
WTO which was created on January 1, 1995, was preceded by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) established on January 1, 1948.
"Having acknowledged the strong academic and professional background of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala and her very large experience in national affairs as Nigeria's Finance Minister (2003-2006) and Nigeria's Foreign Affairs Minister briefly in 2006," the ECOWAS President said.
The AU had said its decision to reject Mrs Okonjo-Iweala was based on the legal opinion of the Office of the Legal Counsel of the organization on the legality of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala following a petition by the Egyptian government against her nomination.
On June 4, President Muhammadu Buhari announced Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as replacement for Nigeria's previous nominee for the post, Yonov Frederick Agah.
Barely 24 hours after the announcement, the Egyptian government petitioned the AU Commission (Commissioner of Political Affairs/Office of Legal Counsel), and sought Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's disqualification from the race.
In its protest letter to the Permanent Missions of the WTO Member-States of the Ministerial Committee on Candidatures, the Egyptian government said the decision to withdraw Mr Agah's candidature meant Nigeria had forfeited its chance to participate in the race.
The Egyptian government said three African candidates had already emerged following their endorsement by the Executive Council of the AU to contest in the elections vide its decision EX.CL/December. 1090(XXXVI) of February 2020.
It listed the three candidates to include representatives of Benin Republic, Eloi Laourou, along with Abdulhameed Mamdouh of Egypt, and Nigeria's Agah, who is currently one of the four Deputy DGs of the WTO.
On June 15, the AU in its response to the Egyptians government's petition, the AU said Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's candidacy violated the extant rules of the organization, which requires the African representative in the race to emerge through an AU sanctioned consensus process.
The AU's counsel said Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's nomination came after the November 30, 2019 deadline set by the ministerial committee on candidature for AU member-countries to present their nominees for the WTO DG race.
Nigeria rejects AU's decision
The Nigerian government has since reacted to the AU's decision, stoutly defending Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's candidate in the WTO DG race.
The response by the Nigerian Embassy and Permanent Mission to the AU on behalf of the Nigerian government on Thursday was contained in a Note verbale to members of the AU ministerial committee on candidature.
In the diplomatic communication, Nigeria totally rejected the opinion of the legal counsel on Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's nomination.
The Nigerian Government said the nomination did not contravene any laws as it was not a fresh nomination, but a replacement of its previously nominee, Yonov Agah.
"The Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will not be a party to any propaganda and/or actions that supplant the vision and objectives of the African Union, by supporting a willful, obviously partisan and outlandish interpretation of rules and decisions.
"It is obvious that the OLC (Office of the Legal Counsel) is stubbornly trapped to the unfounded notion that the candidature of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a fresh submission and cleverly refraining from recognizing it as a replacement for Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah, an earlier submission, duly made in line with all known rules.
"By the same token of illogic, does it then mean that a country whose candidate steps down as a result of natural causes, or acts of force majeure becomes ineligible to replacing such candidate according to OLC? Such a conclusion is not just patently wrong, but worrisome and grossly uninformed."
WTO accepts Okonjo-Iweala
Regardless, the WTO has already named Mrs Okonjo-Iweala among the three candidates whose nominations by their countries have so far been accepted to vie for the organization's DG position.
The WTO's General Council Chair, David Walker of New Zealand, who announced the shortlist of three candidates, said Mrs Okonjo-Iweala would be squaring up against the Mexican representative, Jesús Seade Kuri, and Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt.
The announcement of the nominees is in line with the election schedule spelled out by the WTO.
Mrs Okonjo-Iweala is an economist and international development professional with over 30 years' experience, having worked in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America.
She is currently the Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; a member of the Boards of Standard Chartered PLC and Twitter Inc, and was recently appointed as African Union (AU) Special Envoy to mobilise International Financial Support in the fight against COVID-19, as well as Special Envoy for the World Health Organization's Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.
Twice Nigeria's Finance Minister (2003-2006) and (2011-2015), Mrs Okonjo-Iweala also served briefly as Nigeria's Foreign Minister in 2006, the first Nigerian woman to hold both positions.
She had a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, rising to the position of managing director (operations).