Nigeria: Why Okonjo-Iweala Will Emerge WTO DG Despite U.S. Opposition

30 October 2020

On Wednesday, as Nigerians were rolling out the drums to begin the celebrations that their candidate was coasting home on the victory stretch, the United States removed the sail in their wind.

With the race for the appointment of the next Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) poised to run to the wire, the Nigerian government remains optimistic its candidate and former Coordinating Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, will still emerge the winner, despite stiff opposition from United States, the world's largest economy.

On Wednesday, the former Managing Director (Operations) of the World Bank moved a step closer to actualizing her aspiration as the first woman to break the glass ceiling and emerge as the seventh head of the global trade organization.

On the day, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, who led Nigeria through varying degrees of reforms, particularly on macroeconomic, trade, financial and real sector issues during her sojourn as finance minister, fulfilled the 19th of the 25 step procedures for the appointment of WTO DG contained in WTO Agreement, WT/L/509 of January 20, 2003.

The 19th step of the procedure requires the Chairman of the WTO DG selection panel (Troika) to submit to the WTO General Council the name of the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommend his or her appointment.

The General Council is the highest decision-making body of the WTO after the Ministerial Conference.

On Wednesday, pursuant to the provisions of the stipulated procedures, the WTO Troika presented Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the preferred candidate for the WTO top office over her only remaining opponent and South Korea's former Minister of Trade, Yoo Myung-hee.

The panel said the Nigerian candidate garnered the overwhelming backing from the vast majority of the 164 member-countries of the global trade group, including the European Union, Japan, India, Indonesia and China at the end of the final stage of the consultative process.

WTO rules of procedure

Under the WTO rules of procedure, all its decisions are arrived at by positive or negative consensus. Positive consensus is when all member-countries must agree to accept a particular position, while negative consensus is when all members agree to reject a position on any issue.

For the selection of the DG of the WTO, the procedure requires a positive consensus based on the acceptance by all member-countries of a single candidate as the best fit for the job.

At the expiration of the deadline set to reach a consensus, where a situation arises that one or more member-countries opted to block the process by holding a dissenting opinion from all other members, the procedure requires a recourse to voting as a last resort to resolve the stalemate.

Captured in Paragraph 20 of the WTO procedures, the recourse to voting for the appointment of the DG of WTO is considered an exceptional departure from the customary practice of decision-making by consensus in the group.

In view of its peculiar nature, PREMIUM TIMES gathered from an authoritative source who sits in the WTO General Council in Geneva that two critical issues would have to be clarified and established first by members, to set the ground rules for the voting procedures.

Because of the ambiguity in the voting guidelines under Paragraph 20 of the election procedures, the source said members would have to clarify the mode of voting and the purpose for voting.

For the mode of voting, the source who requested that his identity should not be revealed as he was not permitted to speak officially on the issue, said members would have to decide on whether to resort to the Marrakesh Agreement of January 1995.

Under the agreement arrived at in Morocco by 123 nations to establish the WTO, breaking stalemates are resolved with the winner emerging by obtaining a simple two-thirds majority of the votes by all member-countries and confirmed with a good geographical spread.

Also, before voting, the source said, members would also decide to establish whether the purpose is to just confirm the result already presented by the WTO Troika to the General Council, or to conduct a fresh contest involving the two leading candidates.

U.S. halts Nigeria's stride toward victory

Following last Wednesday's presentation for confirmation of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala by the WTO Troika to the General Council as the preferred candidate, as Nigerians were rolling out the drums to begin the celebrations that their candidate was coasting home on the victory stretch, the United States removed the sail in their wind.

The US representative at the special WTO Head of Delegations' meeting in Geneva was the only strong opposition to Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's confirmation after the last round of consultations with member-countries.

During the meeting, the U.S. faulted the outcome of the consultations, despite that all other member-countries present were unanimous in their insistence the rules were transparent and strictly adhered to.

The U.S. representative was unambiguous about the country's preference of the South Korean candidate, saying Washington would not recognise Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the consensus candidate.

The U.S. government said it opted to root for the Korean Trade Minister as the next WTO Director-General because of her credentials as a bona fide trade expert, who has distinguished herself as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker with all the skills necessary to be an effective WTO leader.

Despite U.S.' reservations, which effectively threw a spanner in Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's confirmation as WTO chief to succeed outgoing DG, Roberto Azevêdo of Brazil, the source said the Nigerian government was not worried that this would diminish the chances of its candidate emerging tops at the end of the process.

Apart from the fact that the American decision to block the consensus process was not an equivalent to the veto power exercised by member-countries of the United Nation Security Council, the source said the Nigerian presidency, the officials of the foreign affairs ministry and the campaign team in Geneva are working assiduously to get everyone on their side.

How Nigeria is pushing for Okonjo-Iweala's emergence

With Monday, November 9, 2020 already scheduled for the extraordinary meeting of the WTO General Council, the source said even if the decision would be to for members to consider a fresh vote between the two candidates, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala still stands a better chance to triumph over her Korean opponent.

"Even if the worst-case scenario of another election between the two candidates plays out on November 9, rather than the confirmation of the presentation by the Troika, we (Nigeria) are confident Mrs Okonjo-Iweala will still have the upper hand," the source said.

Analyzing Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's chances, the source said the battle was not an individual battle for the candidate, but that of Nigeria, whose President, Muhammadu Buhari, has taken the contest as a personal task that must be delivered by all means.

He said the president has not only worked the phones and exploited his contacts among his colleagues and global leaders, but also among diplomatic channels to mobilise support for the Nigerian candidate.

"The overwhelming support Mrs Okonjo-Iweala enjoyed among the 164 member-states of the WTO as shown by the support she received from virtually all the key economic power blocs in the world in the run up to the final round of consultations was a reflection of the wide engagements by Nigeria," the source said.

He said Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's advantage is that in terms of good geographical spread, her Korean opponent would be deficient, as the African group, consisting the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were instructed to turn up as a common bloc to vote.

Apart from the cohesion of the African Group, which would be very difficult for the Korean candidate to penetrate, the source said the African ambassadors had worked assiduously to mobilise and win the support of the African-Caribbean Pacific representatives in the build up to the final consultation.

The African-Caribbean Pacific group consists of countries that make up the former colonies of the European countries, which are to vote as a common economic bloc.

Besides, the source said, the strategic mobilisation team on ground in Geneva made extensive contacts with the WTO representatives from India, China, Japan, Indonesia and the European Union to enlist their support.

Beyond all these alliances, the source said Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's enormous goodwill developed among countries around the world during her over 30 years working experience as a global finance expert with the World Bank in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America also gave her enormous leverage to harvest support, which her Korean opponent cannot hardly march.

"So, whether the appointment would be decided through a simple majority result of two-thirds of total votes cast by all members, the Nigerian candidate is well-positioned to come out tops. She has a better chance than her Korean candidate to receive a good geographical spread in terms of votes cast.

"What will be the focus of the Nigerian Presidency and the team in Geneva ahead of the November 9 scheduled meeting of the General Council will be to step up work on the diplomatic push to bring the US back on Mrs Okonjo-Iweala's side and avoid allowing the process to go through voting again," the source said.

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