President Joe Biden says “America is back”. It is good to see America back, re-embracing multilateralism… It has given its backing to the candidacy of Nigeria’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the WTO…paving the way for the first African and woman as head of the institution. It is a historic win for Nigeria and Africa as well as a reassuring return of a more embracing form of multilateralism on the world stage.
When on June 4, 2020, President Buhari announced the withdrawal of the candidacy of Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah, Deputy Director-General and Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for the position of Director-General for the organisation, replacing him with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, quite a few feathers were ruffled, at home and abroad. At home, some could not find justification for taking out a man with such depth of experience on international trade and the WTO in particular, having been with the organisation since 2005, when he was appointed Nigeria’s Ambassador to the WTO, serving as chair of the WTO’s General Council in 2011, among other notable positions.
From abroad came stiffer opposition to this replacement. For some reason, Egypt strongly felt it amounted to pulling the rug under its feet and that Nigeria was only sneaking behind to re-open the shop when the window for nomination, as mutually agreed on within the African Union (AU), had closed. Indeed, Egypt was right to the extent that the process set in motion by the AU for coming up with an ‘African Candidate’ had lapsed before Nigeria pulled out what appeared to be a joker from her pack. Having taken the position at its summit in Niamey in July 2019 that the AU should do everything to ensure that the next Director General of the WTO is African, it was agreed that interested countries should present their candidates to the African Union by the end of November 2019.
The African Union, at its Executive Council’s 36th Ordinary Session held in February, had endorsed the candidates from Benin, Egypt and Nigeria “as the short list for the African candidates to the post of Director General of WTO and REQUESTS the Ministerial Committee on African Candidatures within the International System to consider the matter and report to the Executive Council’s 37th Ordinary session with a view to agreeing on a single African candidate.” The candidates were: Dr. Agah (Nigeria), Éloi Laourou (Benin) and Abdel Hamid Mamdouh (Egypt). But then, on account of COVID-19, the AU Summit that had been scheduled to hold in Chad in July, at which a final decision would have been ratified, had to be cancelled.
Also, whereas the selection process for the next DG of WTO had been expected to start in December 2020, as a result of the sudden decision in May 2020 by the Brazilian career diplomat, Roberto Carvalho de Azevêdo to step down on August 31, 2020, a year before the expiry of his mandate as WTO Director-General, the General Council had to immediately launch the selection process for a new Director-General for the WTO in June, thus kick-starting a frenzy towards the emergence of a new DG, which by convention had to come through consensus among the 164 member-states.
How that development led to the decision by Nigeria to have a change of candidates, with Okonjo-Iweala, who years back had been linked to the same WTO, coming into the picture, is unknown. The point, however, remains that Nigeria had not before then and could not have even made a formal presentation of the Agah candidacy to the WTO. Rather, what was done was a participation in the process set up by the AU, which, as earlier explained, had not reached conclusion. But understandably, Egypt, perhaps seeing itself as the favourite, buoyed by the rich resume of its candidate, a trade lawyer, with extensive experience in international trade and the WTO, having worked in different capacities within the WTO, especially within the Secretariat since joining the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the predecessor to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), in 1990, was quite miffed at the hand played by Nigeria.
But her request to the “Ministerial Committees on Candidatures to officially inform the African Group in Geneva that candidature of Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has been withdrawn and disqualified, and that Mr. Abdulhameed Mamdouh of the Arab Republic of Egypt and Mr. Eloi Laourou of the Republic of Benin are currently the only two endorsed African candidates” was quite an over-reach. She cited a legal opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), purportedly given during the Ambassadorial level Ministerial Committee on Candidatures meeting, which she said was held on June 4, “regarding Nigeria’s nomination of a new candidate to the post of WTO-DG, in which the OLC clearly highlighted that – from a legal point of view – such a nomination is not in conformity with the Executive Council decision EX.CL/Dec.1090(XXXVI), since the council’s decision has specifically endorsed the three names of candidates as submitted by the Ministerial Committee’s report after thoroughly examining the qualifications and professional experience of each of the three above mentioned candidates.”
I made the case at the time for a strategic alliance involving some key countries to enable Nigeria sail through at the AfDB and WTO. For Nigeria to tread with caution over these two irons in the fire at the same time. She has to be cautious with her approach, ensuring not to operate with a zero-sum mindset, but incorporating a give-and-take strategy…
But even if that was the opinion of the Counsel, apart from it just being another advice with no binding effect, the position canvassed and the premise upon which it stands clearly have no evidential basis in the document that Egypt makes reference to. Nothing in the Executive Council decision EX.CL/Dec.1090 (XXXVI) cited by Egypt makes mention of candidates by their names or infers that the endorsement decision was only on the basis of the qualifications and experience of these candidates. Rather, the Council simply endorsed “the candidates from Benin, Egypt and Nigeria as the short list for the African candidates to the post of Director General of WTO.” Also, the matter had only been referred to the “Ministerial Committee on African Candidatures within the International System to consider the matter and report to the Executive Council’s 37th Ordinary session with a view to agreeing on a single African candidate,” which, as widely reported, had not yet taken place. Indeed, Egypt had pushed the envelope further than it could have legitimately done, as the AU process was quite distinct from that of the WTO. As witnessed in the case of Kenya, non-participation in the process set up by the AU or not abiding by the procedure could not legitimately stop a country from directly participating in the process set up by the WTO. In as much as it would have been the best for Africa to line up behind a single candidate, emerging through the process set up by the AU, it is doubtful if the reading by Egypt or a legal opinion purportedly offered at an Ambassadorial level meeting, if it had been allowed to prevail, would have best served the interest of Africa in what eventually turned out to be a demanding process in which unusual factors bubbled to the top in the campaign. Yet, even though the process as set out by the AU did not quite deliver as expected, it still speaks to the possibilities that can come through the deft deployment of consensus as a tool of decision-making in international relations, as the WTO best exemplifies.
For Nigeria, the timing of the row with Egypt over the selection of a new Director-General for the WTO could not have been more inauspicious. At the time, Nigeria was in a titanic battle over the re-election of Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina as the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), instigated at the instance of the United States of America, over which the support of Egypt, with 5.649 per cent shareholding in AfDB, the second largest after Nigeria, among African countries, was critical. Apart from that, Egypt is highly influential across the North of Africa. So, Nigeria had to tactfully navigate the diplomatic waters.
I made the case at the time for a strategic alliance involving some key countries to enable Nigeria sail through at the AfDB and WTO. For Nigeria to tread with caution over these two irons in the fire at the same time. She has to be cautious with her approach, ensuring not to operate with a zero-sum mindset, but incorporating a give-and-take strategy, with gains assured for other parties in the process. The extent to which that played out, we might not know, even if the withdrawal of the candidacy by Benin Republic and endorsement of Nigeria’s Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is left to interpretation. Obviously, Nigeria recognised and appreciated the intersection and successfully managed the process.
But only few would have known that the fight by Egypt and the indirect face-off between the U.S. and Nigeria at the AfDB was only to foreshadow what would eventually play out at the WTO, with respect to the candidacy of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala for the position of the Director General. At the close of nomination, eight candidates had been nominated by their respective governments, following which a special General Council meeting held for three days in July, during which the candidates met with WTO members to make presentations and respond to questions from members.
At the end of the first round, there were five candidates left in the race, which was pruned to two after the second round. On October 28, 2020, the three facilitators of the selection process – Ambassador Walker, Dacio Castillo and Harald Aspelund announced at the Heads of Delegation meeting that, “based on their consultations with all delegations, the candidate best poised to attain consensus and become the 7th Director-General was Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria.”
While many had thought that the consultation process had finally yielded a consensus, the United States of America injected another round of uncertainty into the process, rejecting the consensus choice of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian candidate, as the new DG of the WTO. The U.S. Trade Representative’s office released a statement officially backing South Korean trade minister, Yoo Myung-hee, the only other remaining candidate, arguing that at a “very difficult time”, the WTO “must be led by someone with real, hands-on experience in the field,” playing to the orchestrated criticism of the Nigerian candidate of having limited experience with respect to multilateral trade.
That Nigeria succeeded in securing a second term for Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina at the AfDB and is now on the verge of having Dr. Okonjo-Iweala confirmed as the new Director General of the WTO, with the General Council set to take a final decision at a special meeting scheduled to hold on February 15, is a huge and unprecedented diplomatic win for the country.
Soon, it had become obvious that the consultation process was not leading anywhere, with the American elections around the corner. On November 6, 2020, Ambassador Walker announced that the General Council meeting which had been scheduled for November 9, 2020 had to be postponed “during which time he would continue undertaking consultations with delegations.” That temporarily aborted the process that would have culminated in the formal announcement of Nigeria’s Dr. Okonjo-Iweala as the new DG of the WTO.
That would not be the first time America, under President Donald Trump, would stand in the way of multilateral consensus. That would not be the first time America would take a stand, seeking to block a Nigerian candidate for a top international position. At the AfDB, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina had, by consensus, received the backing of the shareholders for a second term as the President of the institution, only waiting for a formal affirmation at the Annual General Meeting. Then came allegations of wrongdoing from anonymous whistleblowers. However, following investigation by the Ethics Committee, he was cleared of the allegations. But the U.S., being the second largest shareholder in AfDB, after Nigeria, would not have it. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin questioned the integrity of the committee, insisting on an external, independent probe into the allegations. At its meeting of June 4, 2020, the AfDB Board of Governors reached a “compromise” decision for an “independent review” of the Ethics Committee report, which had exonerated Dr. Adesina on all grounds by a committee made up by members, who deemed him “a neutral, high-caliber individual with unquestionable experience, high international reputation and integrity.” This was AfDB bending backwards to please the U.S., yet at the end of the day, Dr. Adesina was exonerated by the “high-level panel.”
Africa was essentially off the radar for Donald Trump in his four years in the White House. His presence loomed large in the continent for his loud absence. He could not muster a single visit to the continent for the whole term. Whereas, like his predecessors, there was some signature project around which an African policy was anchored, his “Prosper Africa” was more pronounced for the absence of the signature of the person supposedly behind it. Safe to say, there was effectively no place for Africa on the table and that was quite understandable. On occasions that Nigeria featured in Trump’s frame of reference, she was either qualified with words from his repertoire of the ribald or forcefully inserted into a discriminatory immigration policy, which restricted entry into the United States for a category of Nigerian immigrants, a decision the current President of the U.S., Joseph Biden referred to, at the time, as a “disgrace”. Whereas Trump was unable to give fillip to his African policy, his administration, by some coincidence, at critical points, found a way to undermine African leadership in African Development Bank; the World Health Organisation under the Ethiopian, Dr Tedros Adhanom; and not surprisingly, the Okonjo-Iweala candidacy for the Director-General of the WTO.
That Nigeria succeeded in securing a second term for Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina at the AfDB and is now on the verge of having Dr. Okonjo-Iweala confirmed as the new Director General of the WTO, with the General Council set to take a final decision at a special meeting scheduled to hold on February 15, is a huge and unprecedented diplomatic win for the country. It is to the credit of President Buhari and his foreign policy team under the leadership of Geoffrey Onyeama. It was heart-warming to see Dr. Adesina flown home, even when borders around the world were on lockdown, to be assured of support for a renewal of his tenure. Dr. Okonjo-Iweala came calling in October, to thank President Buhari and his team, following up by asking the President to “make one final push within the week to beat the Koreans and bring this to Nigeria by sending a few letters and placing telephone calls to some world leaders, and also thank others for their support”. It is gratifying to see the final push pay off.
President Joe Biden says “America is back”. It is good to see America back, re-embracing multilateralism. The country is back in the World Health Organisation. It has made a return to the Paris Climate Accord. It has given its backing to the candidacy of Nigeria’s Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Director-General of the WTO, affirming the consensus arrived at by other members of the organisation, paving the way for the first African and woman as head of the institution. It is a historic win for Nigeria and Africa as well as a reassuring return of a more embracing form of multilateralism on the world stage.
Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Twitter: @simboolorunfemi
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