Hot Race For WTO’s DG: U.S.-China War Tilts Dynamics In Okonjo-Iweala, Others Favour


By Hamilton Nwosa (Head, The New Diplomat’s Business and Data Tracking Desk)

There is no doubt that Nigeria’s Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala looks pretty good for the position of Director-General of the World Trade Organization(WTO) following her nomination by President Muhammadu Buhari given growing geo-political war between the United States and China on the one hand, and regional contending interests on the other hand.

But then, there are other international and regional heavyweights from the United Kingdom, Kenya, Egypt, and Republic of Benin whose international profile, experience, and global skills-set are equally intimidating and most gripping. For instance, there is the respectable Lord Peter Mandelson from the UK whose trade, negotiations, industry and political experience are most outstanding.

There is also Amina Mohammed from Kenya, a woman with intimidating credentials just like Okonjo-Iweala. A vital asset to her credit is that her specialty and experience cover all the mandate subject matters of WTO such as trade, trade negotiations, monitoring and trade disputes resolutions. In the same vein, there are equally  other experienced industry experts cum seasoned diplomats like Hamid Mamdouh from Egypt and Ambassador Eloi Laourou from Republic of Benin.

Analysts aver that President Buhari scored a clever diplomatic and deft political moves in putting forward Okonjo-Iweala to run for this coveted position. Her gripping credentials, excellent background and profound experience are great assets that stand  her in vantage position.

Already, diplomatic analysts posit that the current escalating diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China  on trade matters would significantly  play a dominant factor in who eventually emerges as  the DG of WTO.

With close of nominations in the next couple of  days, the battle has become intensely fierce with the African bloc laying strong claim to the crucial position of WTO DG. Africa, North America, and the Middle East are the three regional blocs that are yet to produce  DG of WTO till date.

Roberto Azevêdo, the current DG of WTO since 2013, a former Brazilian diplomat from South America had recently  told WTO officials in Geneva that he would step down a year ahead of the expiration of his term in September 2021.

But in a curious diplomatic move that shocked many, rather than allow his deputy Director- General, Nigeria’s Yonov Frederick Agah to step up in the meantime, in acting capacity, Azevedo unilaterally announced that the selection process for a new substantive DG should commence as soon as possible. In this way, the erstwhile Brazilian diplomat avers that the new WTO chief would then be home to the workings of the organization well ahead of time.

This development came as a huge shock to diplomats and international relations experts who see the tension generated over the increasing trade feud between the US and China in the global trade divide as an opportunity to revamp or retool the organization to be more alive to its roles and responsibilities. To them, the selection process for a new DG of WTO now offers that opportunity.

Recall that US president Donald Trump had argued consistently that the  WTO is calm and soft on China, a development that has led to the WTO’s trade arbitrator  to stop functioning effectively because of US increasing vetos  with the appointment of new judges to run the affairs  of the WTO’s highest court.

In addition, COVID-19 radically worsened the situation leading to global trade crisis, trade restrictions, barriers and the need for a new way of global trade. In the midst of this global trade crisis arising from medical restrictions, the voice of WTO hasn’t been loud at the global scene especially in flaying global lock-down against medical supplies. The other  subject matter that might have given the organization  tough diplomatic indecision is the issue of fish subsidies, which has been temporarily put on hold.

The battle for the DG of WTO would therefore certainly be most intriguing and tough as both China and the US flex muscles over who to back among the candidates that have  indicated interest so far. Recall that earlier in the  year, a tough battle  between the US and China over the choice of DG of World  Intellectual Property Organization, a U.N. agency in Geneva, was  equally quite tough and fierce.

But at the end, Singapore’s Daren Tang, who was nominated by Singapore’s government with the active support of the U.S. and European nations  in a bid to fence-off China, won the tight race. The EU-US had backed  Singapore’s Tang because China’s Qu Dongyu had last year emerged as the DG of the UN’s FAO-Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

So the race for this current position would be decided by dynamics such as where  the various candidates and their respective countries align in the geo-political power game.  Are they backed by the US, China and the EU? Which bloc is most crucial?

Here are the Candidates so far and how they stand…

  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Nigeria): She is a former Nigeria’s finance Minister, and a former managing director of the World Bank. Highly educated, she schooled at Harvard, earning PhD in  regional Economics from MIT with expertise in International Finance.  With global industry experience, compelling skill-set and gripping resume that commands attention any day and any time, she is a front-line contender. From managing the Nigerian economy to recovery in the past, she was instrumental to debt forgiveness for Nigeria.

Chances: Very bright. Nigeria is rallying the AU behind her coupled with the fact that heavyweights like the US  might prefer her on account of her solid Western educational background. Besides, she is most extremely competent, highly proficient and very  dynamic. She fits perfectly well in the role of DG of WTO.

  • Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt): He has wide industry experience as a  trade lawyer, and a strong member of the WTO Secretariat from Egypt. Having worked extensively in all key departments both in leadership roles and in negotiations positions at the WTO, many bureaucrats within the system might prefer him. Besides, he has strong experience in international trade and negotiations.

Chances: He has very bright in the light of hailing from Egypt coupled with his skills in trade and negotiations. Diplomatic intrigues by global power blocs might tilt dynamics  in his favour. He has great industry knowledge.

  • Eloi Laourou (Benin Republic): He is the current Ambassador  and permanent representative of Benin to the UN  and other organizations in Geneva, including the WTO. He has been around the WTO for some years and he is said to have a firm grasp of issues relating to the WTO.

Chances: Given the French bloc in the game of diplomacy, diplomatic analysts say his chances should not be downplayed at all.

  • Amina Mohamed (Kenya): She is an international diplomat and lawyer with a long and distinguished career in the foreign service. She is said to have played pivotal roles from the African perspective within the WTO negotiations and trade matters. She has been Kenya Ambassador and PR to the UN in Geneva and the WTO. She is the first and only woman so far to chair the WTO General Council. She has served as Minister of education, foreign affairs, Sports, among others in Kenya. In 2015, she served as the chair of the 10th WTO ministerial Conference  in Nairobi, Kenya. She is highly educated with degrees in international Law, diplomacy, trade, negotiations , etc

Chances:  Her chances are  very bright. Given her industry experience, skills in negotiations, international trade, diplomacy  and sound educational background, bureaucrats might prefer her. In addition, Kenya has always been a crucial factor in global politics.

  • Peter Mandelson (UK): Lord Mandelson  hails from the UK, and he is a former European trade negotiator with widespread industry expertise and experience. He has served as European trade Commissioner between 2004-2008, as well as served as UK’s Secretary of State for trade and treasury, Northern Ireland Secretary and secretary of state for Business under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments. He was member of UK parliament as well with very compelling political, trade and business experience.

Chances: Very bright. The US and EU might align with the UK’s candidate in the diplomatic power game. Analysts say  Lord Mandelson’ chances should not be downplayed at all as he is a global player. He has strong experience in trade and negotiations.

With a staff strength of about 700, the WTO is empowered to carry out the following among other roles: trade negotiation, monitoring and resolving global trade disputes.


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