The Onward March of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to the Headship of the WTO

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala


There is excitement and contention as the World Trade Organisation prepares to elect a new Director General. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s iconic former two-time Finance Minister and former Managing Director of the World Bank, is the reason the otherwise usually tepid process of selecting a DG has become front-page news. When the Ijele enters the square, all participants -spectators as well as lesser masquerades- must take note.

The race to the DG position formally opened as per WTO procedures on 8 June 2020. Governments of member states nominate their candidates for the post. Current Director-General Mr Robert Azevedo will step down on 31 August. Azevedo served two terms.

The WTO announced that there were four nominees on 18 June 2020, listed according to the order of receipt of their nominations. They are Mr Jesús Seade Kuri of Mexico on 8 June 2020, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, and Mr Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt both on 9 June 2020 as well as Mr Tudor Ulianovschi of Moldova on 16 June 2020.

Nominations will close on 8 July 2020. “The Chair will inform WTO members of nominations as soon as they are received. After 8 July, Chair David Walker will issue to members a consolidated list of all candidates. Shortly after the nomination period has closed, candidates will be invited to meet with members at a special General Council meeting, present their views and take questions from the membership”, the WTO further stated.

Curiously, Africa has posed a challenge with its distraction of a protest against one of its brightest stars in the race. An arm of the African Union issued a statement 15 June 2020 sounding like a scorned beauty. It complained that Nigeria did not comply with the AU procedure for the selection of a nominee and announced its disqualification of Nigeria’s nominee.

The Office of the Legal Counsel at the African Union claimed that Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination was against laid-down rules. The executive council of the union in its 35th ordinary session held in Niamey, Niger, asked member countries to present candidates to the AU ministerial committee on candidature by 30 November 2019, to allow it endorse a consensus candidate at its February 2020 ordinary session. The counsel claimed the nomination of Okonjo-Iweala violates Rule (11), 1, 2 and 3, Rule 12 and Rule 15(3) of the rules of procedure of the committee on candidatures within the International System of the AU as well as Council’s Decisions Ex CI 1072 (XXXV), Ec CI Dec 1090 (XXXVI) and Assembly Dec 795 (XXXIII).
Nigeria entered NOI into the race late, in May, by withdrawing its earlier nominee, Mr Fredrick Agah. Agah is a tested hand and insider of the WTO. However, he does not have the clout and name recognition of Okonjo-Iweala.
The African Union is on a long thing. It cannot decide who a country chooses as its candidate. Indeed, the African Union is not one of the bodies recognised by the procedures of the WTO for nominating candidates. The WTO rules know countries and the candidates that they send in.
To compound its confusion, the AU admits that when it carried out its process, it failed to agree on a consensus candidate. It then nominated candidates from Benin, Egypt, and Nigeria. In other words, the AU has backed Nigeria to nominate a candidate but now insists that Nigeria must stick to the candidate that AU endorsed.
The insistence on Fredrick Agah by the AU runs against common sense and national interest of a member country. What if Mr Fredrick Agah were otherwise unavailable from natural or other causes, would the AU insist that Nigeria must produce him? Why would AU seek to dictate what is in the best interest of its member-state? It is enough that AU has backed Nigeria.

The letter from AU is curious and only fits into the maze of intrigues that attend such contests. Egypt had earlier also objected to Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy even as it has its own candidate. The orchestration of resentment against NOI on the grounds of alleged procedural breaches by a bloc not recognised for nominations of candidates is at best curious if not mischievous.

Okonjo-Iweala is by all accounts and analysis the stellar candidate in the race. Opponents are kicking her legs. NOI and Nigeria should keep their eyes on the ball. Lobby. Reach out to all parties. Negotiate. Nothing good comes easy.

Negotiation is at the heart of what the WTO does.
The World Trade Organisation is one of the organs of the United Nations. With 25 years of experience in one of its foremost organs, NOI is adept at the processes and procedures of the UN. It counts for so much. Her call is to make the WTO work for Nigeria and other African countries.

“The World Trade Organization — the WTO — is the international organisation whose primary purpose is to open trade for the benefit of all”. It took off in 1995 as successor to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. The WTO provides a forum for negotiating agreements aimed at reducing obstacles to international trade and ensuring a level playing field for all, thus contributing to economic growth and development. Nigeria joined the GATT in 1960 and the WTO in 1995.

The WTO currently has 164 members, of which 117 are developing countries or separate customs territories. WTO activities are supported by a Secretariat of some 700 staff, led by the WTO Director-General. The Secretariat is in Geneva, Switzerland, and has an annual budget of approximately CHF 200 million ($180 million, €130 million). The three official languages of the WTO are English, French, and Spanish.
Four key WTO agreements influence the engagement of developing countries with it. They are the Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMS), Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, Import Licensing Procedures and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Through some of these agreements, WTO has inflicted commercial injury on Nigeria. We get the short end of the stick on various trade disputes. TRIMS, for instance, frowns at the local content policy that Nigeria now desires to push beyond the oil industry.

On the other hand, Nigeria’s volatile trade policy would be a challenge for a DG from our country. It is unpredictable, lacking in transparency and subject to the whims of different regimes. We run tariff schedules and banned import lists that change whimsically. Go forth courageously, NOI. Nigeria has put its hands to the plough and should draw on its deposits and even reserves in the diplomatic account. Win over the doubters from the Africa block and those from other blocks. NOI should give it her best and become the Director General of the World Trade Organisation. Ship ahoy.