• Sunday, June 16, 2024
businessday logo


Race for WTO DG: Can Okonjo-Iweala win against the odds? Yes, she can!


If having an outstanding CV and a global profile is enough to win the contest for the next Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, WTO, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala would be a shoo-in for the top job. Truth is, of the eight candidates for the DG post, Okonjo-Iweala has the most intimidating and awe-inspiring credentials.

Nigeria’s two-time finance minister and later foreign minister, Okonjo-Iweala is also a former managing director of the World Bank and the first female and African candidate for the presidency of the World Bank. She is currently chair of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, and sits on the Boards of Standard Chartered and Twitter. Okonjo-Iweala has been named more than 10 times as one of the top 100 people in the world and awarded honorary degrees from 15 universities worldwide. She is truly a global icon, a world citizen!

When she ran for the World Bank presidency in 2012, major Western publications, such as the Economist and the Financial Times, wrote editorials supporting her candidature. She lost only because the presidency of the World Bank traditionally goes to an American, while a European always leads the IMF.

Thankfully, that is not the case with the Director-General of the WTO. Since its establishment in 1995, the WTO has had DGs from Europe, Oceania, Asia and South America. But no African has led the organisation. Of the eight candidates vying to be the next DG, three are from Africa, two each from Europe and Asia and one from North America. So, can Dr Okonjo-Iweala secure the top job, based on her overwhelming credentials?

To be sure, everyone recognises Okonjo-Iweala’s outstanding abilities. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said she “can be relied on to successfully apply her skills as an economist, public policy-maker, negotiator and convener to the toughest job in the world.” He said she would “make an outstanding success of running a great global institution of the status of the WTO”, adding that “she is respected across the whole of the world.” In her endorsement, Julia Gillard, former prime minister of Australia, described Dr Okonjo-Iweala as “an excellent negotiator and leaders”, who “would be a wonder choice” for the WTO job.

The truth is that a country that can win the friendship of other nations through strategic relationships would find it easier to call in favours when it matters than a country that has few genuine friends. Sadly, Nigeria is in the latter category!

But would her intimidating CV and global profile be enough to win her the contest? Well, the truth is: an intimidating CV is not enough. Politics will also play a key role, and that includes how other countries see a candidate’s country.

In their book “The New Sovereignty”, the international jurists Abram and Antonia Chayes argue that a country that lacks reputation as a reliable partner “jeopardises its ability to reap organisational benefits”. Unfortunately, Nigeria does not have a reputation as a reliable partner; it is viewed as an isolationist which has little regard for regime rules.

For instance, Nigeria signed the Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO in 1994, but, to date, has not domesticated the WTO rules and obligations. Indeed, in the mid-2000s, some prominent politicians, led by Audu Ogbeh, a former chair of the then governing party, PDP, held meetings across the country calling for Nigeria’s withdrawal from the WTO. And for five years, between 2000 and 2005, Nigeria did not pay its annual subscriptions to the organisation. Even today, Nigeria’s failure to comply with WTO rules is a regular subject on the agendas of the various WTO committees.

Surely, such perceived unreliability could jeopardise Nigeria’s “ability to reap organisational benefits”, namely, in this case, its ability to produce the next DG of the WTO! That is one of the odds facing Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s candidature.

Then, there is the question of the preferences of the individual WTO member-states. A candidate whose country is regarded as a strategic partner by most WTO member-states is likely to attract more support than the one whose country has few friends. Unfortunately, Nigeria has few genuine friends or allies at the WTO.

According to the Financial Times, the two leading candidates to lead the WTO are Dr Okonjo-Iweala and Ms Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s former foreign affairs and international trade minister, who has also been an assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP. Ms Mohammed is a through and through WTO person, who has chaired all the WTO’s influential bodies, including the 10th WTO ministerial conference in Kenya in 2015.

Both Dr Okonjo-Iweala and Ms Mohamed are suitably qualified for the job, although Okonjo-Iweala has better credentials and global profile and has held far more challenging domestic and international roles than Ms Mohamed. However, supporters of Ms Mohamed say she is stronger on trade than Okonjo-Iweala, whose specialities are global finance and international development. But Okonjo-Iweala is not a novice on trade. She played a key role in negotiating the ECOWAS trade liberalisation scheme.

But here’s the question. If, say, the United States and the European Union were to choose between Okonjo-Iweala and Mohamed, what would ultimately influence their decision? Well, I think whether they have a strategic relationship with either candidate’s country would play a critical role.

The US is currently negotiating a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Kenya, while its relationship with Nigeria on trade is frosty. Similarly, while Kenya has signed an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU, Nigeria has doggedly refused to do so. From a strategic relationship point of view, it would not be surprising if the US and the EU prefer the Kenyan candidate to the Nigerian one, especially when either can do the job.

The truth is that a country that can win the friendship of other nations through strategic relationships would find it easier to call in favours when it matters than a country that has few genuine friends. Sadly, Nigeria is in the latter category!

Indeed, Nigeria has few friends in Africa! The way President Buhari nominated Dr Okonjo-Iweala by reportedly flouting the African Union’s laid-down procedures has ruffled feathers among other African countries. The Office of the Legal Counsel of the African Union publicly declared that Okonjo-Iweala’s candidature “violates the rules of the AU”, while Egypt 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.

Equally, the way President Buhari unceremoniously withdrew Nigeria’s earlier nomination of Dr Ynov Fred Agah, currently Deputy Director-General of the WTO, in favour of Dr Okonjo-Iweala has caused some consternation in Geneva. Of course, Okonjo-Iweala has a better chance of winning than Agah. But why was her nomination an afterthought? Why was she not considered ab initio? The shabby way Agah was dropped in favour of Okonjo- Iweala did not go down well in Geneva, where he is very popular, given, among other things, how he steered the difficult eighth Ministerial Conference in 2011 to success!

The next Director-General of the WTO will, as is the tradition, be selected by consensus: no vote! A panel will consult WTO’s 164 members and ask each of them: “What are your preferences?” There will be three rounds. After the first round, the 8 candidates will be reduced to 5; after the second, the 5 will drop to 2 for the final round.

If, as speculated, Dr Okonjo-Iweala and Ms Mohamed make it to the last 2, the question is: who will win? Based on the above analysis, my view is that it will come down to the reputation of each candidate’s country. Sadly, Nigeria has little traction internationally.

Yet, if Okonjo-Iweala makes it to the final round, WTO member-states may decide they want someone with her overwhelming credentials and global profile. Which is why, despite the odds, she can win. But if she does, it would be in spite of, not because of, Nigeria.

I wish her success!