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Why Nigeria switched candidates for WTO top job – Okonjo-Iweala

“Nigeria wants to have a candidate they feel is credible and well-qualified with a proven track record of reform and strong political reach.”

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Former Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has explained that Nigeria switched candidates for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) director general position in order to present a nominee that African countries could agree to push forward as consensus candidate.

“Nigeria wants to have a candidate they feel is credible and well-qualified with a proven track record of reform and strong political reach,” she told a European newspaper in an interview. 

The European Union (EU) has said that it would support an African candidate if African Union (AU) members would put their differences aside and settle on a single candidate that could be sold to the United States as a proven reformer.

In the event that this does not happen, EU plans to present a candidate and, in anticipation of this possibility, EU trade chief Phil Hogan had let it be known that he would gun for the position himself.

Africa is currently failing the test as Egypt and Nigeria have each presented a candidate. Benin Republic, the third African country that initially showed interest in the position, has however withdrawn her nominee and is now supporting the Nigerian candidate.

Okonjo-Iweala has also said that apart from being qualified for the position, she also has “the sort of negotiating skills that would be vital to repair the multilateral agenda and bring competing interests together at the WTO,” a critical skill that all parties have said that they want in the candidate who will take up the job in September this year.

Analysts say the prospects of Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s ascendency will brighten if three factors hold true: AU successfully persuades Egypt to withdraw her nominee in favour of Nigeria; which will in turn make it easy for Europe to back an African candidate; who could be perceived as a true reformer by United States’ President, Mr. Donald Trump.

The US position on who becomes the top dog at the WTO was made known by EU trade chief Hogan who said he got the feelers after discussions with US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer.

Although Hogan said he did not expect that the US would be in a hurry to make her views public until all the candidates are known, “Ambassador Lighthizer is very much of the view that a developed country should assume the responsibility of the director-general of the WTO.”

Another factor that will sway US interest is the coming November 2020 presidential elections’ battle.

Researchers have drawn a link between the level of interest that a US president shows in WTO affairs and trade issues with far-reaching domestic impact in swing states during presidential campaigns.

Results from such researches show that in an election year, incumbents seeking reelection are increasingly interested in the affairs of the WTO because of how they may affect states that depend on exports or are impacted by imported products they produce.

In the days before the Coronavirus pandemic seized public imagination and public policy debates, President Trump had been particularly critical of the WTO over its inability to push for needed reforms, especially as it relates to its current trade battle with the Chinese.

…stepping down in September 2020

The sustained series of Tweet-attacks by Trump may have aided the decision of WTO director-general, Roberto Azevêdo, to step down at the end of his tenure in September 2020, analysts said.

The organisation has also battled to contain China’s domestic policies which have continued to smartly side-step WTO’s trade liberalization rules to the chagrin of the United States.

It has been suggested that, although Nigeria presented a poorly packaged CV of its highly qualified candidate, the current disposition of the United States on the WTO generally may work against candidates of Egypt and Mexico as they may be seen as “insiders” who may be tempted to perpetuate the status quo.

The Egyptian candidate, a lawyer and diplomat, has done extensive work for the WTO in the past while the Mexican candidate in addition to his WTO experience was also at the head of his country’s recent trade dispute talks with the United States.

Nigerian continues to quietly pull diplomatic strings to get the AU to accept Harvard-trained Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, a former Managing Director at the World Bank, as Africa’s consensus candidate who may have an edge over the Mexico nominee.

These diplomatic offensives have already yielded fruits with the withdrawal of the Beninoise candidate and his country’s decision to back Ngozi Okonjo-Iwheala, despite spirited efforts made by Egypt to woo the Nigerian western neighbor.

The one-month nomination window for applicants opened on 8 June 2020 and has three more weeks to run from today 16 June, before nominations close on 8 July.

One Reply to “Why Nigeria switched candidates for WTO top job – Okonjo-Iweala

  1. One would not be surprised that Nigeria could not adequately package her candidate, Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iwuala, to expectations. What do you expect when policy making positions are allocated without considering merit.
    Notwithstanding, I am optimistic that the candidature of Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iwuala will sail through considering the gains AU will be expecting if they present consensus candidate like Ngozi.
    We wish Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iwuala the best.

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