The AU And Okonjo-Iweala’s WTO Candidacy

Pushing a candidate for a global organisation takes a lot of diplomatic skills, lobbying an even arm twisting and that is exactly what has been going on in the corridors of the AU secretariat.

Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was the economy/finance minister in former president Jonathan's cabinet / Photo credit: foreignaffairs.com
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was the economy/finance minister in former president Jonathan's cabinet / Photo credit: foreignaffairs.com

The World Trade Organization is facing an uncertain future.

The 164-member world has in recent years seen its rules and regulations discarded by both the United States of America and China in a tit for tat tariff war.

The trade organisation is faced with the threat of becoming irrelevant because the US no longer sees it as a fair arbiter in settling trade disputes and promoting what it terms as fair trade.

And that has been since Donald Trump was elected president.

Its grievances are not only with China.

The US has also broken ranks with the European Union and has gone as far as imposing tariffs on a number of targeted exports from the E.U.

Virtually everyone around the world is now in agreement that there needs to be reform in how the WTO operates, something African countries have been seeking for decades.

And for any meaningful reform to take place, the US more than any other country needs to have trust in the leadership of the WTO, which means anyone leading it must be immune to all regional and continental influence.

But precisely because it is a party to the dispute and one of the biggest contributors to international trade, the EU is considering one of its own to lead the WTO when there is expected to be a vacancy later this year.

In truth, if the EU decides to field a candidate to take over leadership of the WTO, only American objections would stop the chosen candidate from succeeding.

But success will also mean more than half of the world would be left on the sidelines as the EU and US negotiate the future of the WTO.

The African Union is also showing more interest in international trade rules and has become more vocal about trade practices that it sees as been detrimental to the economies of some African countries

All of this is happening at a time when Africa is seeking to increase its participation in world trade and protect itself from unfair trade practices, some of which emanate from the EU especially in the field of agriculture.

As things stand today though, the EU has been a major partner in the drafting of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which is meant to come into effect perhaps next year.

The African Union is also showing more interest in international trade rules and has become more vocal about trade practices that it sees as been detrimental to the economies of some African countries.

Still, the push to have an African candidate emerge as the Director General of the WTO is more symbolic than it is an attempt to realize certain policy goals that will favour the continent in international trade.

That is however not stopping a number of countries on the continent from squabbling over who gets to nominate its candidate.

And in the process, a number of structural weaknesses within the organisation of the AU as an independent institution and the ability of one country strategically positioned to hijack processes is being exposed.

Egypt, for the second time since 2013 is seeking to get its one-time diplomat, Abdel Hamid Mamdouh elected as the Director General of the World Trade Organization. Mamdouh is no stranger to the WTO.
Apart from a career at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, he spent 20 years as an insider at the WTO and was the Director of Trade in Services and Investments there when he first sought to lead it.

In promoting his candidacy, Egypt has succeeded in ensuring that the AU makes it an agenda to push for an African candidate to take over the top job at the organization.

Pushing a candidate for a global organisation takes a lot of diplomatic skills, lobbying an even arm twisting.

And that is exactly what has been going on in the corridors of the AU secretariat.

The first time Egypt sought the DG position in 2013, it lost out in the early round to eventual winner and present occupier of the seat, Brazil’s Roberto Azevedo, who plans to step down in August 2020.

Legally, there is no reason why the AU should be involved in the nomination process.

It is more of a political decision to have it involved.

For any African candidate to stand a chance of clinching the top job, consensus is crucial from all member states from the AU because of the number of votes they potentially hold in the selection of a new DG for the WTO.

And that is exactly why Egypt has been reliant on the AU to settle on one candidate, only it wants that candidate to be Mamdouh.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan until Nigeria chose to nominate Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the job instead Yonov Agah who is deputy director general at the world body.

The difference between Okonjo Iweala and Agah is that as a former managing director of the World Bank, an institution that the US has far more leverage and control over than the WTO, Okonjo-Iweala’s name is much more recognisable in Washington and many world capitals.

In that sense, she has spent a good number of her years working and promoting an institution that is in some respect a tool of US foreign policy goals.

Agah, on the other hand, has represented Nigeria on the world stage and his independence, and ability to look beyond regional interest cannot be easily measured.

Egypt has the tendency to use international institutions as leverage to further its regional and international objectives when its nationals are in key positions to do so.

For any African candidate to stand a chance of clinching the top job, consensus is crucial from all member states from the AU because of the number of votes they potentially hold in the selection of a new DG for the WTO

There is evidence of that at the UN, the Arab League and even the AU.

That was exactly why the Legal Counsel to the AU Dr. Namira Negm, came out with a legal opinion and said the nomination of Okonjo-Iweala did not meet certain stipulated conditions, part of which were that the nomination of a candidate should pass through the commission and be done within a certain timeframe.

But what is really happening is that Negm is choosing to politicise the Office of the AU Legal Counsel and turn it into an extension of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

As an Egyptian diplomat and employee of its Foreign Ministry, she has spent her entire career looking out for the interest of her country.

So, it is no surprise that Negm would stick her neck out to put her office and in effect the entire AU Commission on the same page with Egypt in seeking to disqualify Nigeria from the contest to replace the Director General of the WTO.

Even if Nigeria had failed to strictly comply with agreement on how to nominate candidates, which the country disputes, it didn’t warrant disqualification or even a strong position taken by the AU, especially from the diplomats within the secretariat who ultimately don’t make the final decisions.

It is likely that Nigeria is underrepresented at the AU secretariat and that it why its interests continuously suffer to that of other countries.

Or maybe the country’s diplomats are just not that effective and skilled in the brutal art of diplomacy.

Nevertheless, Nigeria has already stated that the position taken by the AU in the unfolding scenario seeking to nominate a consensus candidate is not unbiased.

It might have to go a step further and write a formal protest on how the nomination process is being managed, otherwise the hostility towards Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination will only grow bolder and win more countries over.

Written by Shuaib Shuaib

Shuaibu, a former Editor of the LEADERSHIP Newspapers, is based in Abuja.

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