WTO top job: Groups revive Amina-Ngozi rivalry long after race

WTO candidates Amina Mohamed and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Nigeria's former Foreign and Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Kenya's former WTO General Council chair Amina Mohamed.

Photo credit: File | AFP and Nation Media Group

Two lobbies are reviving the rivalry between Kenya’s Amina Mohamed and Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for the top job at the World Trade Organization, long after the race ended.

They appear to question the integrity of the European Union endorsement, which tilted the race in favour of Dr Okonjo-Iweala and South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee after the second round of the race.

Ms Mohamed was in the second round with Dr Okonjo-Iweala, Ms Yoo and two other candidate - Mr Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri of Saudi Arabia and Dr Liam Fox of the United Kingdom.

The WTO has since declared Dr Okonjo-Iweala the candidate most likely to attract consensus but her formal endorsement depends on whether the US lifts an objection on her.

But in a letter to the European Commission earlier this month, the European Renewable Energies Federation, the association of green energy in the EU, argued Ms Mohamed should have been the “ideal” candidate to be endorsed by the EU for the WTO top job due to her pledges on climate-friendly policies.

The federation asked the EU to rescind the endorsement of the Nigerian.

“We were shocked when we learnt that the selection process turned out to be based on political consideration only, instead of the evaluation of performance, experience and highest level of support by members and, above all, integrity,” Pastötter Stefan, a representative of the Federation’s board.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's former Finance minister, could take the post formally once the General Council meets to appoint her.

Process questioned

Ms Mohamed, the Kenyan Sports Cabinet Secretary, conceded in public after the second round and the Kenyan government has since endorsed the Nigerian as an African candidate. 

However, the groups accused the EU of railroading its member states.

“This selection should have come up with the best possible leader for the WTO, a leader who would generate confidence in the system and who is known for outstanding skills to build consensus among members whose interest vary considerably,” said Marita Eisenmann-Klein, the founding President of the European Committee on Quality Assurance and Medical Devices in Reconstructive Surgery.

She wrote a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on November 3.

She too asked for a reconsideration, saying, the European bloc should have endorsed a person who had worked at the WTO before.

“Since all the facts were obvious, I had no doubt that Amb Amina would be the next Director-General of WTO.

“When I had to realise how the selection process for such an important position was managed, I was extremely upset. Good governance and due diligence seemed to be completely disregarded,” she wrote, warning the bloc’s reputation could be on the line.

System's protection

The European Union, an influential economic bloc within the WTO, does not have a direct vote but as it trades often as a bloc, its member states vote based on what is best and agreed as a bloc.

A spokesperson from the European Commission told the Nation the endorsement choices were done transparently, including the decision to choose between Dr Okonjo-Iweala and Ms Yoo.

“In the context of the transparent and legitimate process of the selection of the new Director-General of the WTO, the EU reached consensus to support the recommendation made by WTO Ambassadors on October 28, backing Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala as new Director-General for the WTO, as well as the integrity of the WTO selection process,” the European Commission spokesperson told the Nation in an email on Friday.

“We would like to see the selection of a new director-general concluded as soon as possible, to give the necessary stability to the organisation and political impetus to the reform effort. We are closely monitoring developments on this issue.”

While she admitted that the two finalists were “both strong and experienced,” she said the EU had endorsed a candidate they thought could protect “the rules-based multilateral trading system.”

The claims came even as it was revealed a fictitious author named Larry Wayne had written a letter in the Financial Times in August, lampooning Ms Mohamed a representative of a WTO system that “is now in limbo.”

Days after the letter came out, the Kenyan government protested to the FT which later pulled it down following questions on the identity of the author.

Dr Okonjo-Iweala's team distanced itself from the author, however.

US objection

The General Council, the highest decision making organ of the WTO, delayed a meeting planned for November 9 to endorse Dr Okonjo-Iweala, citing Covid-19 and US elections whose results were not yet out.

But the continued objection by the US means the global commercial arbiter could go on for months without its head. Under the selection rules of the WTO, the desire to have consensus simply means “no one can disagree”.

In public, the US trade representative said it was endorsing Ms Yoo as “a bona fide trade expert” with more than two decades in trade negotiation and trade policy making.

“This is a very difficult time for the WTO and international trade. The WTO is badly in need of major reforms. It must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field.”

But some diplomats told the Nation the US lobbied against Dr Okonjo-Iweala based on her associations with former trade chief at the WTO, whom the US feels did not front their interest. The top officer also appeared on her campaign meetings as an adviser.

With consensus deadlocked, however, there could be little chance for the process to restart. But the WTO could be forced into a secret ballot, something which has been done only once in the organisation’s 25-year history.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari vowed earlier this month to campaign on in every WTO member state, including the US and South Korea, to ensure Dr Okonjo-Iweala gets the requisite consensus.

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