Nigeria: WTO's DG Race - Okonjo-Iweala Should Win, but Nigeria Has Few Friends

6 August 2020

READING the biographies of the eight candidates for the next Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, WTO, it's obvious that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has the most intimidating and awe-inspiring credentials.

Nigeria's two-time finance minister and later foreign minister, Okonjo-Iweala is a also former managing director of the World Bank, first female and African candidate for the presidency of the World Bank and current chair of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. She also sits on the Boards of Standard Chartered and Twitter.

In recognition of her global influence, Okonjo-Iweala has been named about 10 times as one of the top 100 people in the world by reputable publications such as TIME, Fortune, Forbes and Newsweek, and awarded honorary degrees from 15 universities worldwide. She is truly a global icon, a world citizen!

When Dr Okonjo-Iweala ran for the World Bank presidency in 2012, major Western publications, including the Economist and the Financial Times, wrote editorials supporting her candidature. She lost only because the head of the World Bank is traditionally an American, while a European always leads the IMF.

Thankfully, such an unfair arrangement doesn't apply to the post of Director-General of the WTO. Since its establishment in 1995, the WTO has had directors general from Europe, Oceania, Asia and South America.

But no African has led the organisation. Of the eight candidates for the next DG, three are from Africa, two each from Europe and Asia and one from North America.

Surely, if having an awe-inspiring CV is enough to become the WTO's Director-General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala would be a shoo-in for the job. But an intimidating CV is not enough.

Politics will play a major role too! Put simply, the candidate whose country is viewed positively by other WTO members will attract more support than the one whose country is not. Unfortunately, Nigeria belongs to the latter category; it's seen as isolationist and unreliable, with very few genuine friends among other nations.

The shambolic manner in which President Buhari nominated Dr. Okonjo-Iweala for the WTO DG job by unceremoniously withdrawing his government's support for Yonov Fred Agah, currently Deputy Director-General of the WTO, played into the narrative of Nigeria being a perfidious country, and has caused consternation among other African countries.

What's more, it does Dr Okonjo-Iweala no favours that she became a candidate only after President Buhari had second-thoughts and following the public humiliation of another Nigerian.

For, having announced Agah as Nigeria's nominee - it was reported in the Financial Times - suddenly replacing him with someone else is a public embarrassment, especially for someone who is currently a deputy director-general of the WTO.

But why was Okonjo-Iweala not considered ab initio? Why was her nomination a second thought? Well, the answer is probably because there was no love lost between her and the Buhari administration.

In her book, Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous, Okonjo-Iweala narrated how policemen invaded and ransacked her house on the suspicion that someone was "hiding bags of currency" there, but, instead, found bags containing "only old newspapers".

Later, a police officer told her personal assistant to tell her boss "to keep calm", adding: "It was nothing but politics." Okonjo-Iweala wrote that the Buhari administration's anti-corruption campaign was being used "to settle scores and intimidate". So, she wouldn't have been President Buhari's first choice.

My guess is that Professor Ibrahim Gambari, President Buhari's new chief of staff, was instrumental to the decision to replace Agah with Okonjo-Iweala. As a former linchpin of the UN, Gambari must have told Buhari that Okonjo-Iweala had a better chance than Agah. Yet, the decision has ruffled feathers.

First, the Office of the legal counsel of the African Union said Okonjo-Iweala's candidature "violates the rules of the AU" because the AU was already considering Agah's nomination along with others with a view to endorsing a consensus candidate. Egypt later asked the WTO to reject Nigeria's nomination of Okonjo-Iweala.

Although the WTO dismissed Egypt's request, the issue has needlessly created ill-feelings among African countries. What's more, the way Agah was dropped in favour of Okonjo-Iweala reportedly caused some consternation in Geneva.

Truth is, Agah is respected in Geneva. In 2011, when the WTO's eighth Ministerial Conference was widely predicted to fail, it was Agah, then Nigeria's ambassador to the WTO, who, as chair of the WTO General Council, built consensus among the members to ensure the success of the conference.

When I met Dr. Agah in Geneva in 2013, he explained the intricate negotiations he undertook to salvage the conference from collapse. Later that year, I was arranging to invite Agah to the LSE to share his experiences with the students when, suddenly, the new Director General, Roberto de Azevedo, appointed him as one of his four Deputy DGs.

It was a fitting recognition of his outstanding leadership of the 2011 ministerial conference and other important leadership roles in the WTO.

Now, none of this is in opposition to Dr Okonjo-Iweala's nomination. She is absolutely the best person for the WTO job, and I fully support her candidature.

When she came to the LSE in 2018 to present her book Fighting Corruption Is Dangerous, I attended the event to support her, and bought the two books she wrote on her experiences in government. As she autographed the books, she remarked: "Oh, you bought the two books, thank you!" I later wrote a column on the event titled: "Okonjo-Iweala's big reminiscence day in London" (BusinessDay, May 28, 2018).

So, I am a big fan of Dr Okonjo-Iweala. But the manner of her nomination, which is a reflection of the dysfunctionality of the Buhari government, is deeply embarrassing and takes the shine out of her remarkable candidature.

Yet, that said, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala can and should become the WTO's next DG, but only if her global personality can overshadow Nigeria's poor reputation. Truth is, she can only win in spite of, not because of, Nigeria. I wish her well!

VANGUARD

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