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Okonjo-Iweala: A win for multilateralism


Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Photo by Eric BARADAT / AFP)

When President Buhari on June 4th, 2020 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, home and abroad. At home, some could not find justification for taking out a man with such depth of experience on international trade and 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, 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 31st August 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 to 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.”

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 its 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, yet it 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 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.

To be continued tomorrow.

Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise.


Twitter: @simboolorunfemi

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