By Cletus Adole
Two years ago, US President Donald Trump was widely reported as describing Africa and some other developing regions of the world as “shithole countries”. The statement generated myriad reactions across the world, many by Africans who expressed deep unhappiness at the sweeping, negative and tone-deaf characterization of millions of people. Though some tried to defend the description as factual and honest, the consensus was that the comments were unfair and disrespectful and very unhelpful to international cooperation and mutual co-existence.
Whatever may have been the US President’s intent, literal or metaphorical, there is now a real basis for concern with regard to current US policy and mindset towards Africans who are heading or competing for the headship of international organizations. It is no exaggeration to say that the world’s most influential superpower is averse to, in fact hostile to the idea of high achieving Africans leading multilateral organizations.
More and more, it seems that a core component of US foreign and economic policy is to ensure that Africans don’t get into the top positions in such bodies and even if they manage to, invent reasons to frustrate them out of office. The “America first” anti-globalization, protectionist ideology which animates current US foreign and economic policy is shaking up the international structures and norms established after the second world war in unprecedented ways. In Africa, the impact of US policies is not only economic and political; it seems to have a decidedly racial element. Increasingly, it seems that high achieving Africans whose impressive track records have earned them respect of peers and stakeholders in their areas of specialization have not been forgiven for the crime of being citizens of “shithole countries”. The evidence is piling up and cannot be denied.
The case of Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization also bears all the hallmarks of this deep-seated US hostility to Africans in multilateral organizations. The first African to hold the position, Tedros was endorsed by the African Union after serving as Minister of Health and Minister of Foreign Affairs. But in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Washington has launched a blistering campaign designed to demonize and oust him. Trump administration has called the WHO a “puppet of China” under Tedros’s leadership and accused the global organization of allowing the pandemic to spin out of control. It is also threatening to defund and pull out of organization.
Many of the US allegations against Tedros have been proven to be false. For instance, the US government alleged that WHO “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from the Lancet medical journal”. But the editor of the respected publication, Richard Horton, has come out to debunk the claim, stating that “the Lancet did not publish any report in early December 2019 about a virus spreading in Wuhan. The first reports we published were from Chinese scientists on Jan 24, 2020.” Many other allegations against Tedros betray the same sweeping, woolly, “get them by any means” charges that characterize the US government’s campaigns against Africans at the helm of multilateral institutions.
This unofficial but trenchant anti-African mindset also recalls US hostility to the second term bid of the president of the African Development Bank, Dr Akinwunmi Adesina. Based on his solid first term performance, Adesina was the popular choice of the relevant decision-makers in the organization for a second term. But his independent spirit and insistence on the best interests of the continent were not pleasing to the current US administration.
Though comprehensively cleared by the bank’s Ethics Committee of spurious allegations made by some anonymous whistleblowers, the US did its best to get him out of office in disgrace. Deploying its powers as the Bank’s largest non African shareholder, the US backed the whistleblowers position that the Ethics Committee did not have the capacity to conduct an independent investigation. Expressing “deep reservations about the integrity of the committee’s process, US Trade Secretary Steven Mnuchin insisted on an additional investigation of the allegations by the whistle blowers “using the services of an independent investigator of high professional standing”.
As it turned out, Adesina was vindicated by the subsequent investigation which proved conclusively that the charges against him had no substance and he went on to win an unprecedented unanimous endorsement by the shareholders for a second term. Once again, America’s objection to a high performing African was shown to have no basis in fact or logic.
And now, the latest. After many months of a grueling and highly competitive process, Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has emerged as the clear and overwhelming choice of member countries of the World Trade organization to serve as the next Director-General of the organization. From an initial eight candidates, the intensive process eventually pruned the number to two: Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee. The final tally, according to international media reports, was 100 votes for the former Nigerian finance minister and 60 for the Korean trade minister, but some say that is a conservative count, that Okonjo-Iweala’s votes is actually about double her opponent’s. Anyhow, it was a landslide win by any definition. The number and spread of the votes garnered by the Nigerian is also impressive. Her support cuts across both developed and developing countries, nations of different geographical regions and different levels of economic development.
By any measure, Okonjo-Iweala has earned the right to head the organization which operates the global system of trade rules, acts as a forum for negotiating trade agreements and settles trade disputes between members – functions that are ever more critical as the world battles the negative impact of protectionism and the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But in a move that is as arbitrary as it is illogical, the US has announced its opposition to Okonjo-Iweala’s emergence as DG, ostensibly because the Trump administration is dissatisfied with the electoral procedures – even though the US and other WTO countries had agreed on the same procedures before the commencement of the process. Not surprisingly, many member countries have come out strongly against the American position which is seen as arrogant and disrespectful of the consensus position of member countries. Many international experts also consider the statement by the US Trade Secretary that Myung-hee “has all the skills necessary to be an effective leader of the organization” as an after thought.
The idea that Okonjo-Iweala does not have trade skills as the Americans implied defies belief. Without taking anything away from the esteemed lady from Korea, the leadership skills, technical knowledge and experience of Okonjo-Iweala in many areas, including trade, are beyond doubt as anyone who looks at her resume can see. Additionally, the suggestion that the countries and regions who backed Okonjo-Iweala are ignorant of the mandate of WTO and the qualification requirements for prospective director-general simply doesn’t make sense. Perhaps most important, the robustly-expressed democratic choice anchored on time-tested, institutionally-certified processes should be more important than the opinion of one member, however influential.
The US objection to the emergence of Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the WTO is undemocratic and indefensible. It flies against logic, the clear facts and justice. It is thus gratifying that the majority member-countries from the global north and south who voted for her have come out to defend the winning candidate and the integrity of the rigorous process that produced her victory. Their decision to ignore the untenable American position and proceed with the General Council session on November 9 which will formally put forward Okonjo-Iweala as head of WTO is the right step.
America’s efforts to deny a better qualified and legitimately elected candidate who happens to be a dual citizen of the US and Nigeria the opportunity to head the organization is a travesty which should not be allowed to stand.
*Adole is a public policy analyst