A political heavy-hitter from Nigeria is shaking up the race to lead the World Trade Organization, but her immediate challenge is whether the rest of Africa will rally behind her candidacy this week.
Nigeria on Friday nominated Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister and corruption-buster who now sits on the board of Twitter, to succeed Brazil’s Roberto AzevÃªdo as WTO director general in Geneva, ideally by September.
The entry of the Harvard-educated former World Bank No. 2 into the contest significantly increases the prospect that it could fall to the WTO’s first African boss to lead the sclerotic institution out of the paralysis caused by a trade war between America and China.
To her supporters in Geneva, she is just the candidate that the beleaguered institution needs for a reputational boost, steering it into the much-vaunted “African century” and away from the stark polarization of Washington-Beijing hostilities that have brought the WTO to a practical standstill in the past months.
One senior African trade official stressed that the continent’s advantage was that it was not in the front line of the tariff battles between China, the EU and the U.S. “Africa will not have a compromised candidate,” he said.
Okonjo-Iweala’s critics argue her expertise lies more in finance than trade, with one diplomat saying she was “not a trade name.”
There are no guarantees that she will win, however. Even within the African Union, which is meant to unite behind a candidate this week, ructions have erupted. Egypt, an African powerhouse that has its own technocratic candidate in the race, is crying foul over the Nigerians’ choice. Kenya also opposes her, diplomats noted, and its former Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed was earlier seen as a contender.
Once candidates are chosen regionally, the appointment of a WTO boss is meant to be achieved by “consensus” through epic rounds of diplomatic haggling in Geneva.
Okonjo-Iweala’s critics argue her expertise lies more in finance than trade, with one diplomat saying she was “not a trade name” and an African official saying, â€œInternational trade law isnâ€™t really on her CV. Did they want to play the gender card with a high-profile successful woman close to the private sector?â€
She is also regarded with suspicion by several on the EU side.
Despite Europe’s public declarations that it wants to forge closer alliances with Africa, its diplomats are also wary of a trade official who could rekindle feuds over Europe’s lavish agricultural subsidies â€” a long-held grievance in Africa. The European nightmare would be that European farm payments become snared up in talks on reducing state subsidies to Chinese industry.
Crucially, Europe is also eyeing the WTO top job for one of its own big names, potentially including European Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan as well as one of his predecessors, Peter Mandelson, and Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha GonzÃ¡lez. Washington has yet to make any comment on who it will support.
Front-line finance minister
Few doubt that Okonjo-Iweala is a force to be reckoned with. After 25 years at the World Bank, she twice served as Nigeria’s finance minister between 2003 and 2015, taking on a slew of vested interests. In 2012, her octogenarian mother was kidnapped, allegedly over the blocking of fuel-subsidy payments, but she remained committed to reforms. “Some people have to stand up,” she told the BBC in an interview on Nigerian corruption.
Her most headline-grabbing achievement was negotiating an $18 billion debt write-off with rich countries, but she also passed major measures such as an oil fund to stabilize the economy by banking crude income above a certain level. She cleaned up a highly corrupt fuel-subsidy scheme and significantly reduced delays at the country’s ports.
She also sought to increase transparency and discourage corruption by publishing the government’s monthly finances and introduced an electronic tax system â€” which made it harder to divert funds illegally.
â€œShe will be a challenge to any European candidate,â€ said one official following the WTO race from the EU camp.
Okonjo-Iweala was later accused of having permitted corruption within the government because then President Goodluck Jonathan diverted funds destined for development to the military to fight Boko Haram Islamist militants. She admitted that funds had been diverted, but fought back against the corruption claims by publishing part of her correspondence with the president.
In addition to the board of Twitter, she also sits on the board of Standard Chartered bank and chairs the board of Gavi, a global vaccine alliance whose work has become more prominent during the coronavirus pandemic.
Considering her track record, a senior French official told POLITICO that “everything remains open,” including the possibility that EU countries don’t nominate their own candidate and back Okonjo-Iweala instead, adding that she was a “good candidate.”
Brussels’ top trade civil servant Sabine Weyand told EU countries that the Commission wanted the EU to back its own European candidate, but officials back in the capitals questioned her logic.
“Any EU candidate would be blocked by the United States,” a diplomat from an eastern EU country said, pointing out that six out of the nine previous world trade chiefs have been Europeans.
Okonjo-Iweala’s most immediate obstacle lies in Africa.
In contrast to Okonjo-Iweala, Cairo’s candidate Hamid Mamdouh is an all-out trade expert. A former WTO director, he now works for the law firm King & Spalding.
He too reckons Africa’s time has come. “While Africa has never held the post since the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Europe has had it several times and other regions have had it as well,” he told POLITICO.
Speaking before Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy, the technocratic Mamdouh aired doubts about whether it was a role for a politician. “The WTO needs an impartial, honest broker for this position,” he said.
The Egyptian camp is accusing Nigeria of breaking proper procedure by playing the Okonjo-Iweala wild card.
The African Union in February put forward a “shortlist” of three candidates with the aim of uniting behind one of them later in the process. The original three â€” all Geneva insiders â€” were Mamdouh, Eloi Laourou from Benin and Nigeria’s Yonov Frederick Agah.
When the early resignation of AzevÃªdo caught them by surprise, the African Union nations reached out to governments to unite behind one candidate. But Nigeria switching its candidate at the last minute has only made that process more difficult, several African diplomats complained. In a letter seen by POLITICO, Egypt pointedly says its candidate and the one from Benin are now “the only two endorsed African candidates.”
“Although she is inarguably a skilled banker and political operator, trade diplomats are after all a cult” â€” Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the ECIPE think tank
The plan is to hold a meeting of the African Union by videoconference before June 12 to try to agree an African candidate. Critically, diplomats say that South Africa was more open to Okonjo-Iweala’s candidacy.
Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the Brussels-based ECIPE think tank, pointed out that much would hinge on Okonjo-Iweala’s ability to win round the cultish trade circles where she was little known.
“Although she is inarguably a skilled banker and political operator, trade diplomats are after all a cult. She must convince the trade ministers â€” who are traditionally oppressed by the figures of finance ministries,” he said.
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