Why WTO Elections may not favor Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala

Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, one of Africa’s most respected technocrats, has locked horns with seven other candidates gunning for the top job at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as the current DG, Roberto Azevedo sets to step down in August.

But what chance does Dr. Okonjo-Iweala stand to become the next Director-General of  the global trade body?

The WTO is an International organisation established in 1995 to deal with the global rules of trade between nations, pushing for a coherent and smooth regulation of trade among nations of the world.

 Presently, the organisation has 164-member nations and 24 observer governments.

Okonjo-Iweala, a finance and international development expert, is Nigeria’s nomination for the position.

However, she is facing seven other high flying candidates from Africa, Europe, the Middle-East, North America, and Asia who were also nominated by their governments.

Okonjo against other African contenders

The Egyptian candidate, Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, a senior official of WTO since 1990 and an international trade lawyer, is one of the Africans contesting for the position.

Mamdouh, a nominee of the African Union boasts of a long career in trade policy and diplomacy.

Starting out as a commercial attache in Egypt’s ministry of economy and foreign trade, Mamdouh worked up the ranks,  playing key roles at the WTO and partaking in negotiations that have contributed to the standing of the international organisation till date.

Another contender is Amina C. Mohamed , Kenyan’s former minister of foreign affairs and international trade.

Mohamed served as her country’s permanent representative to the WTO for six years, emerging as the first woman to chair the General Council of the WTO in 2005,  before her appointment as minister. She’s a law degree graduate and a Chevening fellow alumna.

On the other hand, with a combination of experiences working as a development economist, finance and international development expert, Okonjo-Iweala comes with a set of unique core competencies that position her as a great candidate for the job.

She graduated with a degree in economics from Harvard University in the United States (US) and also earned a doctorate degree in regional economics and development from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), also in the US.

The development economics expert also has 15 honorary degrees from top universities around the world including Yale, Brown, and University of Pennsylvania.

Beyond her ivy league education, Okonjo-Iweala, has served twice as Nigeria’s finance minister, after a successful career in the World Bank, rising to the level of Managing Director.

One of her achievements as a Minister in Nigeria was her clinching a multi-billion dollar debt relief package for Nigeria.

The AU, however, is not throwing its weight behind Okonjo-Iweala, partly due to her lack of WTO experience.

“The respectable, honourable candidates from Kenya and Nigeria have not passed through the processes and procedures of the African Union as the Egyptian candidate did,” the AU has noted.

Unlike the AU, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional political and economic union of fifteen countries located in West Africa has thrown its weight  behind Dr. Okonjo-Iweala.

ECOWAS did not only   endorse her candidature but also urged other African and non-African countries to support  her quest for the WTO job.

Her chance is, however, constrained by the fact that, she is one of the three candidates from a continent has never won the position since its establishment in 1995.

Okonjo-Iweala against candidates from other continents

Candidates from Africa are not the only rivals Okonjo will have to worry about.

There is Jesus of Mexico, formally Jesús Seade, the founding deputy DG of WTO and an expert chief negotiator.

Seade graduated summa cum laud with a degree in chemical engineering from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) before obtaining a doctorate degree at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom (UK).

A polyglot with citizenship of Mexico and Lebanon, Seade is fluent in all three official WTO languages and has basic knowledge of Portuguese and German.

From the UK is Liam Fox, an international trade secretary under former UK Prime Minister,Theresa May.

He served as  Secretary of State for Defence from 2010 to 2011 then Secretary of State for International Trade from 2016 to 2019.

Fox as trade secretary, on his part, built a new department of government to oversee the creation of the UK’s first independent trade policy for over 40 years post Brexit.

Fox’s fellow contender from Europe is Tudor Ulianovschi from Moldavia, the Eastern part of the continent.

Ulianovschi has served as foreign affairs minister of his country and built a career in diplomacy for over a decade. His educational background is in international public and trade law.

In the Asian continent, only the Republic of Korea and Saudi Arabia presented candidates for the Director-General position.

Yoo Myung-hee, a trade minister of the Republic of Korea, has focused on trade throughout the span of her career.

Myung-hee serves as the first ever female trade minister in her country, spearheading regional and bilateral trade negotiations successfully.

Saudi Arabia’s candidate, Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri, currently advises the minister of the royal court on international and local economic strategic matters.

He holds an MBA in finance with honors from King Saud University and has served as Minister of Economy and Planning in Saudi Arabia.

For Okonjo-Iweala, having no direct trade background has raised questions about her ability to lead WTO to the promised land.

How does Okonjo-Iweala stand alongside other contenders?

During her presentation before the general council on Wednesday, Okonjo-Iweala submitted that trade is an essential part of development economics, which she has practiced for almost three decades successfully.

And she combines this experience with exposure, having worked in four continents for over three decades.

But with the AU’s decision to back the Egyptian candidate, Okonjo-Iweala chance may suffer a setback.

Critics have also questioned  Okonjo-Iweala credentials on trade negotiations.

Many believe that her lack of  WTO experience, unlike others, may weaken her chance.

But Okonjo-Iweala has punctured that arguement, reminding the critics that she combines both trading and finance skills as a finacial expert and development economist.

Though, it is too early to determine who will lead the global trade organisation, Okonjo-Iweala however stands a good chance to clinch the top  job.

If appointed, she would become the first woman and African to lead the most  influential global trading organisation.

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