Africa & the WTO: Three’s a Crowd

What’s the Chop?

Things are heating up in the race to head the World Trade Organisation, and our eyes are on the Africans in the pack.

What exactly does the World Trade Organisation do?

The WTO (aka the World Trade Organization) calls the shots on all trade matters between countries. Countries need rules and regulations to ensure that trade between them is as fair as possible, and that process of negotiating with each other and coming to agreements is facilitated by the WTO. They also police these countries to make sure they stick to the terms of their agreements, and can impose trade sanctions when they don’t. Plus, when trade disputes come up, the WTO mediates.

So, what’s this race?

The WTO is reviewing candidates to take on the role of Director-General (DG). The ex-DG, a Brazilian, Roberto Azevedo, was in office from 2013 till this year (August 31), on two four-year terms. His second term was supposed to end in 2021, but he stepped down a year early. Some believe the decision might have been triggered by a dispute between the usual suspects — US and China — in their competition for global dominance. Now, the WTO is without a leader and is on the hunt for one — to steer the ship, oversee admin functions and take charge of the Organisation’s 600+ staff.

Who’s running?

There are eight candidates vying for the spot — as nominated by their various countries — three of whom are Africans:

  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, from Nigeria, was the country’s Finance Minister from 2006 to 2013. She also worked at the World Bank for 25 years, where she served as Managing Director and even ran for President. Since then, she’s been working with UNESCO, the IMF, and more recently, with the African Union (AU) to help manage the continent’s financial situation amidst COVID-19.
  • Amina Mohamed, from Kenya, is the Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Heritage and Culture, after decades at the UN, including serving as a deputy director at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). She also has a history with the WTO — she chaired its General Council.
  • Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, from Egypt, currently works as a lawyer, and is a career diplomat, who worked at the Egyptian embassies in Ethiopia and Australia. He also spent 20 years working at the WTO right after it was established.

How are their chances looking?

The selection of the DG goes from region to region — Europe, Oceania, Asia and South America are the only regions that have featured so far; as Africa has never had a ‘turn’, people are saying that the time has arrived. However, Africa has not presented a united front, and so it’s not clear who African countries will throw their weight behind. Nevertheless, right now, the WTO needs a lot of reform, so the ideal candidate will need to have: a solid track record with reform, knowledge of trade issues and protocols; and more importantly, the political clout to manage the ongoing US-China drama, among other things.

Because of Egypt’s ongoing drama with Ethiopia over the Nile Dam, some say Mamdouh is unlikely to get the nomination, which means Africa’s chances stand with Okonjo-Iweala and Mohamed. Okonjo-Iweala’s global experience and the strides she made leading several reforms against corruption in Nigeria has made her an attractive choice. On the other hand, Mohamed’s past experience with the WTO makes her a prime candidate, since she is fluent in their procedures and processes.

What happens next?

The candidates are chosen by consensus. They have until September 7 to campaign. After that, WTO reps will start a series of consultations with all WTO member countries who will confidentially indicate their preferred candidates. The reps will then use these stats to determine the candidates best-placed to attract consensus support. First, it will be whittled down to a selection of five, then finally, two names will be brought forward, and it’ll be put to a vote.

Your Takeaway.

According to many, the WTO is in a ‘wretched state’. There are a whole bunch of issues. From its failure to complete global trade negotiations in the past two decades; to its inability to get a number of G-20 countries to accept ‘developed country’ status and the stricter trade rules that come with that; to the drama around selecting an interim DG in the wake of Azevedo’s exit — clearly, there is a ton of work ahead for the lucky winner. May the best woman (*cough cough*) win.

What can I do?

Unfortunately, not much. We gotta sit this one out and watch it unfold.




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