Monrovia — When West Africa powerhouse, Nigeria submitted a Note Verbal to the ECOWAS commission, notifying the regional body of its intent to put forward, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, its former Finance Minister as a candidate for the leadership of the World Trade Organization, Africa's quest to lead the WTO was dealt a hiccup that could rock the continent's chances.
Prior to the nomination of Okonjo-Iweala, an economist and international development expert, Kenya's Amina Mohamed, a lawyer, diplomat and politician, who currently serves as the Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Heritage and Culture in Kenya was highly touted as Africa's candidate for the coveted post. So was Egyptian former diplomat Hamid Mamdouh.
Mamdouh, currently a Senior Counsel at King & Spalding LLP and former Director of the Trade in Services and Investment Division of the WTO, the global body which deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.
ECOWAS has already endorsed Okonjo-Iweala's candidacy; the East African bloc is poised to endorsed Mohammed while the North African nations will more than likely endorse Mamdouh.
Africa already has the top spot at the World Health Organization where Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the Director-General.
The nomination of the trio by their respective countries now leaves the possibility that the continent could split votes and derail its shot at the WTO.
The current Director-General, Mr Roberto Azevêdo, announced earlier this year that he will step down on 31 August 2020.
Besides Amina, Okonjo-Iweala and Mamdouh, Great Britain has also nominated its first post-Brexit international trade secretary Liam Fox as a candidate.
The other candidates are: South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee; Mexico's former WTO deputy director-general Jesus Seade Kuri and former Moldovan foreign minister Tudor Ulianovschi.
Under WTO rules, the appointment of the Director General is made by a consensus decision of the General Council, which consists of all WTO members.
Normally, the selection process begins nine months before the expiration of the director-general's four-year term. During the first month, member states nominate candidates who are interested in the position.
Since 1995, heads of the WTO have been more diversified reflecting the membership with Italy, New Zealand, Thailand, France and Brazil. Neither an African national nor a woman has held this post so far, making this selection process one of the most closely-watched in recent years.
With the candidates announced so far representing Europe, South America and Africa, the lobbying process is expected to be intense but with Africa fielding three candidates, the chances could be slim.
Both Amina and Okonjo-Iweala are influential names on the continent.
Okonjo-Iweala previously spent a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, scaling the ranks to the Number two position of Managing Director, Operations, from 2007-2011. She also served two terms as Finance Minister of Nigeria from 2003-2006 and 2011-2015 under the leadership of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan respectively.
Ms. Mohamed, a former Kenyan trade minister has previously chaired the WTO's general council. She also previously served as chairwoman of the International Organization on Migragion as well as Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Programme. She served as the Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Kenya from May 2013 to February 2018, when President Uhuru Kenyatta, after re-election, moved her to the Education docket.
Egypt's Mamdouh made the rounds at Egyptian embassies in both Ethiopia and Australia during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
He joined the Ministry of Economy and Foreign Trade, working in the branch responsible for bilateral trade relations. In 1985, he was appointed trade negotiatorat Egypt's permanent mission to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
In 1990, he was hired by the GATT (the forerunner of the WTO), first to provide legal advice and then to assist the Deputy Director-General.
He served as Secretary of the Council for Trade in Services until 2001, then head of the Services and Investment Division until 2017, the senior international civil servant spent a total of 20 years in the corridors of the WTO before joining Switzerland-based King & Spalding.
Over the next few months, leading to the election of the next Director General , the more than 160 member countries that make up the WTO will be involved in intense lobbying for the perfect leader to help the organization recover from a massive trade war trumpeted by US President Donald Trump and Chinese state capitalism.
Whoever gets the nod will be counted upon to salvage the multilateral's dispute-settlement system, which has been weakened by a US block on appointments of judges to its appellate body.
Additionally, the body is currently struggling to cope with complaints from Washington, Tokyo and Brussels that the organisation's rule book is a relic of the 1990s that is ill-adapted to the rise of developing countries and Chinese industrial subsidies.
Africa's rising potential as a major economic and business center is appealing to the rest of the world which is why many analysts say the time is ripe for the next director general to come from the continent.
More importantly, no less than one quarter of the WTO's membership is African, and seven of the 19 current candidates for WTO accession are from the continent.
For West Africa, the next leader will have their hands full trying to quell rising concerns regarding ECOWAS's controversial regional trade.
Currently, the WTO and the trade regime provide the basic parameters for trade policies amongst countries in the region.
For most countries in the region, shifting from the national customs tariff (2010) to the ECOWAS CET has been a major tariff reform, entailing adjustments in the customs duty rates for nearly two thirds of all tariff lines. The ECOWAS CET classification consists of essential social commodities (duty- free); essential commodities, raw materials, and capital goods (rate of 5%); intermediate products (rate of 10%); consumer goods (rate of 20%); and specific goods for economic development (rate of 35%).
The ECOWAS CET is considered problematic in a number of sectors from the point of view of competitiveness and food security.
Recent efforts by ECOWAS to build a West- Africa-wide customs union, which involves the creation of a free-trade area within the region and developing a common external tariff (CET) for trade with countries outside of the Community.
For the foreseeable future, the continent is in a strong position to produce the next Director General of the WTO although the possibility of a close-vote scenario could divide the three countries on the ballot. The silver lining for the continent, trade watchers say, is the lack of support among EU-member states for the candidate from Great Britain, who some say does not have strong international experience as the other candidates in the race.
Should this hold true, the next WTO leader, bearing any unforeseeable splits over the quest for votes, will most likely be a woman or a representative from the continent - a long overdue but a timely proposition for a continent holding the future of business and trade in its hands with the rest of the world clamoring for its attention.