On Friday, the United States government, which under the Donald Trump’s Presidency was the solitary opposition to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s aspiration to succeed the outgoing Director-General of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, announced its “strong support” for her candidacy.
With last Wednesday’s withdrawal from the race of the US candidate and South Korean’s nominee, Yoo Myung-hee, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala is on the cusp of history as the seventh head of the global trade organization; the first woman and the first African to be elected DG of the global trade watchdog,
Here’s the road she traveled to get there.
On May 14, the Director-General of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, announced he would step down on August 31, one year before his term would expire.
Election of a new DG was earlier scheduled for between June 8 and 11, 2020. But the process had to be delayed delayed until 2021 due to the disruptions associated with the impact of COVID-19.
Initially, five candidates announced their intent to seek nomination from their governments to run. They include Yonov Agah, the Deputy Director-General of the WTO from Nigeria; Amina Mohamed, a Kenyan international civil servant with a long career in public and foreign service; Hamid Mamdouh, a trade lawyer, member of the WTO Secretariat, and trade negotiator for Egypt; Eloi Laourou, the ambassador and permanent representative of Benin to the United Nations and other organizations in Geneva, including the WTO, and Peter Mandelson, from the United Kingdom, a former European trade negotiator.
Two of the candidates later pulled out of the race, leaving the trio of Mamdouh of Egypt, Agah of Nigeria and Laourou of Benin.
On June 4, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari confirmed Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination as Nigeria’s candidate for the Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) election scheduled for in Geneva, Switzerland in 2021.
The confirmation was contained in an official announcement through the Nigerian Embassy and Permanent Mission to the African Union (AU) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In the diplomatic note to all member countries’ embassies and permanent missions, President Buhari said he was also communicating Nigeria’s decision to withdraw the candidacy of Yonov Frederick Agah for the election. Mr Agah, a Nigerian, was one of the four deputy directors-general of the WTO.
On June 6,2020, the Egyptian government filed objections to Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s candidature. In its communication No. 081 /2020- AU of June 5, 2020, to the Permanent Missions of the WTO Member States of the Ministerial Committee on Candidatures for the elections, the Egyptian government said Nigeria’s decision to withdraw Mr Agah’s candidature meant a forfeiture of its chance to participate in the race ahead of the July 8, 2020 deadline for the closure of nominations for the elections.
The Egyptian government sent a copy of its letter to the African Union Commission (Commissioner of Political Affairs/Office of Legal Counsel).
Egypt insisted that as far as it was concerned, three candidates, representing Benin Republic, Egypt and Nigeria, had already obtained the endorsement of the Executive Council to run in the race vide its decision EX.CL/December. 1090(XXXVI) of February 2020.
It named the three candidates to include Eloi Laourou of the Republic of Benin, Abdulhameed Mamdouh of the Arab Republic of Egypt Arab Republic, and Mr Agah of Nigeria.
Egypt asked the Ministerial Committee on Candidatures to officially inform the African Group in Geneva about Nigeria’s disqualification and the need for the committee to acknowledge its candidate “Abdulhameed Mamdouh of the Arab Republic of Egypt and Eloi Laourou of the Republic of Benin as the only two endorsed African candidates” in the race.
The Egyptian government based its decision on a legal opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) during the Ambassadorial level Ministerial Committee on Candidatures meeting of June 4, 2020, regarding Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as Nigeria’s new candidate in the race.
The Egyptian government quoted the OLC as noting that Nigeria’s nomination was not in conformity with the Executive Council’s decision EX.CL/Dec. 1090(XXXVI), since three candidates submitted by the Ministerial Committee report had already been endorsed.
But the Egyptian government’s position did not take into consideration the process for the selection of the WTO Director-General announced in May which contradicted the purported OLC’s opinion on the matter.
WTO unveil appointment process
On May 20, 2020, the WTO General Council Chair, David Walker of New Zealand, informed members that the appointment process for the next Director-General of WTO would formally commence on June 8, 2020, with nominations accepted from that date until July 8, 2020.
Mr Walker said it would only be after July 8 that the “issue to members a consolidated list of all candidates” would be announced.
AU Legal Counsel opinion
On June 8, 2020, the Office of the Legal Counsel of the AU said Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s candidature violated the extant rules of WTO.
In his formal legal opinion contained in a June 15, 2020 letter to Nigeria’s Permanent Mission and the African Union in Addis Ababa, the counsel referred to its Note verbal 150/2020 of June 9, demanding the immediate review of the opinion of the Office of the Legal of the AUC against Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination.
The counsel said that in July 2019, the Executive Council during its 35 Ordinary Session held in Niamey, Niger, called on the AU member States to consider presenting candidates to the AU Ministerial Committee on Candidatures in the International System for the position of WTO Director General by November 30, 2019, with a view to endorse one candidate during the February 2020 Ordinary Session.
He said the development prompted Benin, Egypt and Nigeria to submit their candidatures namely, Eloi Laourou, Abdulhameed Mamdouh and Yunov Agah.
However, due to the lack of consensus on one suitable candidate during the February 2020 Summit, he said the Executive Council through decision Ex Cl 1090 (XXXVI) recalled the Ex Cl December 10T2 (XXXV) and endorsed respectively the candidates from Benin, Egypt and Nigeria as short listed for the post of the Director General of the WTO.
He said the names of the candidates were incorporated in the Report of the Committee on International Candidatures presented to the Executive Council.
On the appropriateness or otherwise of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination, the counsel said the submission of the candidates shall be in line with certain stipulated conditions. It referenced rules 11 (1,2,3) and 12 of the Rules of Committee.
“All candidatures shall be submitted to the Committee, through the AU C0mmission (The Political Affairs Department). The Political Affairs Department should acknowledge receipt containing the date and the stamp of submission,” it said.
“Candidatures shall be submitted to the Commission at least two (2) months prior to the Sessions of the Executive Council, which shall consider them. The submission shall be accompanied by relevant information related to the submitted candidatures, including the nature of each post, date and place of elections,” it added.
Furthermore, the counsel argued that the rules state that the Committee may accept candidatures submitted after the deadline “only when no other candidatures for the position have been submitted in the prescribed time; the submission of candidatures has been closed; and there are more vacancies reserved for Africa than the submissions received, among others”.
The counsel therefore argued in its position that the nomination of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala contravened extant rules, specifically rules 11 and 12.
Nigeria rejects AU legal opinion
In a Note verbale to members of the AU ministerial committee on candidature, Nigeria totally rejected the opinion of the legal counsel on Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination.
The Nigerian Government said the nomination did not contravene any laws as it was not a fresh nomination, but a replacement of its previously nominee, Yonov Agah.
“The Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Nigeria will not be a party to any propaganda and/or actions that supplant the vision and objectives of the African Union, by supporting a willful, obviously partisan and outlandish interpretation of rules and decisions.
Republic of Benin nominee withdraws
However, as the debate was ongoing, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination received a major boost following the decision of the Republic of Benin to withdraw its nominee, Eloi Laourou in support of Nigeria’s candidate.
Benin conveyed its decision to withdraw its nominee in a letter to the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Benin to the United Nations Office and Member States of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (01F) at the WTO in Geneva, Switzerland.
WTO’s three candidates’ shortlist
While the AU counsel was busy faulting Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination, the WTO named her among the three candidates shortlisted to vie in the race.
The WTO’s General Council Chair, David Walker of New Zealand, announced the shortlist, which also included Mexican representative, Jesús Seade Kuri, and Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh of Egypt.
Mr Walker confirmed the appointment process for the next Director-General formally commenced on June 8 with nominations accepted till July 8 when a consolidated list of all the candidates would be issue to members,
Shortly after the nomination closed, he said candidates would be invited to meet with members at a special General Council meeting to allow them to present their views and take questions from members.
On June 22, 2020, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala candidature received another major boost with her endorsement by the 15-member Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS).
The president of ECOWAS, Mahamadou Issoufou, said the endorsement on June 19, 2020, was based on the authority of the Heads of State and Governments of its member-countries.
The ECOWAS president said the Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s endorsement followed the communication by the chairman of the General Council of the WTO announcing her as one of the four candidates nominated by their countries to vie for the position.
At the end of the 57th Ordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the ECOWAS in Niamey, Republic of Niger, the organization reaffirmed its support from Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s candidature for the WTO job.
WTO announced a two-horse race
With the withdrawal of the Benin candidate from the race, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala emerged as the lone African candidate to square up against the only other opponent representing the rest of the world.
On October 6, 2020, the WTO announced Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as one of the two final candidates to advance to the final round in the race. The other candidate announced by the
WTO General Council Chairman, David Walker, was South Korea’s Yoo Myung-hee., after United Kingdom’s Liam Fox, Kenya’s Amina Jibril, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Al-Tuwaijri failed to secure enough support in the second round of consultations for the race.
In announcing the two finalists, Mr Walker said at the end of the selection exercises, if the WTO members were unable to select a new DG by consensus, a vote requiring a qualified majority would be held as a last resort.
The meeting to select the consensus candidate was scheduled for November 7, 2020.
But on October 29, 2020, the United States’ government said it was opposed to Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s selection as the consensus candidate.
The Office of the US trade representative on the WTO director-general selection process said it was supporting the selection of Korean Trade Minister, Yoo Myung-hee, as “a bona fide trade expert who has distinguished herself during a 25-year career as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker.”
On October 28, 2020 the result of the third and final rounds of the selection process concluded on October 27 2020 was announced.
With the win, she fulfilled the 19th of the 25 step procedures for the appointment of WTO DG contained in WTO Agreement, WT/L/509 of January 20, 2003.
The 19th step of the procedure requires the Chairman of the WTO DG selection panel (Troika) to submit to the WTO General Council, the highest decision-making body of the WTO after the Ministerial Conference, the name of the candidate most likely to attract consensus and recommend his or her appointment.
WTO Troika’s presentation of preferred candidate
Pursuant to that provisions of the stipulated procedures, the WTO Troika presented Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the preferred candidate for the WTO top office over her only remaining opponent and South Korea’s former Minister of Trade, Yoo Myung-hee.
The panel said the Nigerian candidate garnered the overwhelming backing from the vast majority of the 164 member-countries of the global trade group, including the European Union, Japan, India, Indonesia and China at the end of the final stage of the consultative process.
Consequently, Mrs Okonjo-Iewala was presented as the consensus to be presented by the WTO Troika for confirmation during the meeting of the WTO’s general council scheduled for November 9, 2020.
However, prior to a special WTO Head of Delegations’ meeting in Geneva on November 9, 2020, the US representative was the only strong opposition to Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s confirmation after the last round of consultations with member-countries.
During the meeting, the U.S. faulted the outcome of the consultations, despite that all other member-countries present were unanimous in their view that the rules were transparent and strictly adhered to.
The U.S. representative rooted for the South Korean candidate, vowing not to recognize Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the consensus candidate.
The U.S. government said it opted to root for the Korean Trade Minister as the next WTO Director-General because of her credentials as a bona fide trade expert, who has distinguished herself as a successful trade negotiator and trade policy maker with all the skills necessary to be an effective WTO leader.
WTO General Council meeting postponed indefinitely
On November 7, 2020, 48 hours to November 9 scheduled for WTO General Council to meet and complete the process by confirming Mrs Okonjo-Iweala as the consensus candidate for the WTO DG, the WTO announced the indefinitely postponement of the special meeting.
The General Council Chair, David Walker, said the meeting was postponed because of the global health situation as a result of COVID-19 pandemic which made delegates not to be in a position to take a formal decision as scheduled.
“I am therefore postponing this meeting until further notice during which period I will continue to undertake consultations with delegations,” Mr Walker said.
The other reason for the postponement, which the General Council Chair referred in his statement as “current events” related to the U.S. elections, which was a few weeks away then.
The postponement was strategic considering the opposition by the Donald Trump’s U.S. administration to the appointment of Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala as the WTO DG in preference of her South Korean opponent.
With the US election over, the emergence of Joe Biden-Kamala Haris as President and Vice President respectively resulted in a major shift in the narrative in favour of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala and Nigeria.
Korean candidate withdraws
On Wednesday, February 3, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s only opponent, and the South Korean candidate, Yoo Myung-hee announced her withdrawal from the race.
Mrs Myung-hee’s withdrawal paved the way for Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s endorsement by the US government.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative which previously led the opposition a few months ago against Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s election, turned to pledge its support for her candidacy.
“The Biden-Harris Administration is pleased to express its strong support for the candidacy of Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as the next Director-General of the WTO.
“Dr. Okonjo-Iweala brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy from her 25 years with the World Bank and two terms as Nigerian Finance Minister.
“She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership,” the US Representative said in its statement.