Tough Challenges for African Candidates to lead WTO July 2020

Tough Challenges for African Candidates to lead WTO


As Roberto Azevedo, the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) prepares to step down, there is a big task to pick the top leader to steer the trade body through the hard times ahead.

Last month, Azevedo surprised the WTO’s 164 members by announcing he would quit at the end of August, a year earlier than expected, citing personal reasons.


This leaves a task to the organisation to choose a new leader before the Brazilian former trade negotiator leaves the organization this year – ideally in September, according to WTO.


Nominations to replace the outgoing DG opened last week, and will close early next month, but debate has emerged whether Africa will lead the organization for the first time.


With three of the previous six directors-general from Europe and the others from Thailand, Brazil and New Zealand, there is pressure to choose a leader from Africa, analysts say.

Paul Batibonak, a Cameroonian diplomat who served at the WTO in Geneva believes the profile of Azevedo is not particular, indicating that African candidates could win the race.

“I think many people consider that it’s the turn for Africa to rule the Organization. I think all African WTO members noticed in 2013 that it was possible for Africa to rule the Organization,” he says.

Batibonak highlights that there are many challenges in the WTO which members know have nothing to do with the profile of the DG.

“But for Africa to take the opportunity, fundamentally, we need to put in place a strategy to make sure African candidates have the best chances,” he notes.

Africa has already fronted two candidates to the top position, including Nigeria which nominated its former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Egypt which has fronted Abdel Hamid Mamdouh, a trade expert.

Okonjo-Iweala, who also sits on the board of Twitter, has already shaken up the race to lead the organization. This is because many of her supporters in Geneva insist that her experience matches perfectly the demand of the top position.

“She has had a stellar career both at the World Bank and in her country, leading several reforms. Being the first woman to lead the organization sounds attractive to many,” a WTO staff in Geneva says.

Okonjo-Iweala has over 30 years of development and financial expertise under her belt.

Her 25-year career with the World Bank Group culminated in her rise to the second top position in the organisation as Managing Director, from 2007-2011.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Finance (twice) in Nigeria, she made history by being the first woman to hold these powerful positions.

In the latter role, she spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club of Creditors that led to the wiping out of $30 billion of Nigeria’s debt.

With Kenya already touting Amina Mohamed as a candidate – a very strong contender given she nearly got the role last time – Egypt’s chance of grabbing the top position for its own Mamdou, makes it an even tougher race with Okonjo-Iweala now in the running.

While there is nothing in the guidelines that says that the position rotates, like the UN Secretary General position for instance, there is a push that Africa should have its chance.

“The guidelines do not indicate that every region must be there, but there are certainly delegations in Geneva that believe Africa should have its turn,” an analyst in Switzerland says.

“That of course presupposes that there are strong African candidates in the race,” he adds, indicating that there are also people who say it’s a turn for a woman.

The past nine directors-general have been men.

Rules of the game

Keith Rockwell, spokesperson of the WTO says that rules for nominating a candidate for the WTO top job stipulates that countries have to officially put forward their choice as per the allotted window of time.

“In this case, on May 20 2020, General Council Chair David Walker of New Zealand informed members that the appointment process for the next Director-General would begin on June 8, with nominations accepted until July 8,” he said.

After that date, there will be what Rockwell describes as a “big contest” where each member goes and presents themselves in front of the General Council for 15 minutes and a 45-minute question and answer session.

“It’s one hell of a job interview,” he says.

Rockwell insists that whoever will be appointed has a very big challenge ahead of them.

“We have Covid-19, trade tensions, we have serious problems with dispute settlement functioning, negotiating functions have been harmed, and people are not notifying as they are supposed to,” he notes.

Apart from Africa, Mexico has backed its candidate Jesús Seade Kuri, Mexico’s Undersecretary for North America and Chief Negotiator for the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA).

Europe is also eyeing the WTO top job for one of its own big names, potentially including European Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan as well as one of his predecessors, Peter Mandelson, and Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González.

Washington has yet to make any comment on who it will support.



Julius Bizimungu




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