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Nigeria faces risks as Okonjo-Iweala nominate to lead World Trade Organisation


President Muhammadu Buhari’s nomination of a former Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, for the position of the director-general of the World Trade Organisation puts Nigeria in a precarious position in the African regional and international politics. This decision may make it difficult for Nigeria to secure pan-African endorsements for its candidates for positions in transnational bodies for five years. It may also affect the country’s diplomatic communication links.


This is because Mrs Okonjo-Iweala may not get AU’s endorsement for the position as she is joining the race after the body’s stipulated period for nominations. Her belated nomination by Mr Buhari also means she will be contesting the election against candidates already endorsed by the AU, which will be in violation of the body’s rules on candidature for positions in international organisations.


Such a violation comes with risks of sanctions on a nominating country.


By Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination, another Nigerian, Yonov Agah, whose candidacy was already approved by  AU Executive Council, was withdrawn in what appears to be a breach of AU’s agreed terms on candidature for the WTO’s top job. Mr Agah is currently one of the four deputy DGs and Nigeria’s representative at the Geneva-based global trade body.


And there are concerns among Nigerians in the diplomatic and international development circle that Western interests may be pushing the Okonjo-Iweala candidacy to assuage Nigeria in the circumstance the moves to stop Akinwumi Adesina’s re-election at the African Development Bank are successful.


But Paul Nwabuikwu, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s media adviser, told PREMIUM TIMES, “There’s absolutely no connection between Dr Adesina’s campaign for a second term at the African Development Bank and Dr Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination for Director-General of WTO.”



In a diplomatic note through Nigeria’s mission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which hosts the AU headquarters, Mr Buhari last Thursday announced Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, formerly Nigeria’s finance minister and World Bank’s managing director, as the country’s candidate for the WTO job.


Mr Agah was already shortlisted alongside two other African candidates for the WTO’s DG position by the Executive Council of the AU before Mr Buhari’s decision to replace him with Mrs Okonjo-Iweala on Thursday.


The two other African candidates shortlisted by the AU, alongside Mr Agah, are Egypt’s Hamid Mamdouh, a trade lawyer, member of the WTO Secretariat, and trade negotiator for Egypt; and Beninoise Eloi Laourou, the ambassador and permanent representative of Benin to the United Nations and other organisations in Geneva.


Despite the withdrawal of his candidacy for the position of DG, Mr Agah will remain at the WTO as a deputy DG until October 2021 when his second tenure expires. So, if Mrs Okonjo-Iweala succeeds, the world would have two Nigerians, for some time, at the highest level of the WTO

Mr Agah, who has about 30 years in international trade, has spent 15 years at the WTO, starting as Nigerian Permanent Representative to WTO in 2005 before becoming the organisation’s deputy DG in 2013.


Mr Agah’s nomination was seen as backing him to the zenith of the organisation, having already held a senior leadership role there. He oversees the organisations, development division, institute for training and technical cooperation and trade policies review division.


Mr Buhari did not give reasons for withdrawing Mr Agah’s candidacy. But the president mentioned Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s record of accomplishments in international development and finance, including her 2010 role “as chair of the World Bank’s successful drive to raise $49.3 billion in grants and low-interest credits for poorest countries of the world,” and presently as Chair of the Board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.


Nigeria’s foreign affairs ministry did not comment when its spokesperson, Ferdinand Nwonye, was contacted on Sunday.


AU’s endorsement process

The endorsement of the three from Benin, Egypt and Nigeria was documented as EX.CL/Dec. 1090(XXXVI) and is contained in the official record of the Executive Council’s decisions at its February 6-7 2020 36th ordinary session in Addis Ababa. PREMIUM TIMES has seen the record, which also indicates a request to the committee on candidatures within the international system for further consideration of the three candidates with a view to eventually having a single African candidate.


The AU’s Executive Council, comprising foreign affairs ministers of member states, has standing rules to promote African candidatures within the international system. Its ministerial committee on candidatures consider nominations from member states and makes recommendations to the Executive Council.


So, while African member states of transnational bodies are free to nominate their nationals for positions at such bodies, they have agreed to cooperate on presenting common candidatures for positions in the international system.


This protocol helped to ensure Mr Adesina was the only candidate for the AfDB’s election this year. His endorsement by the AU Executive Council was sealed the same day the council approved the nominations of Mr Agah, Egypt’s Mr Mamdouh, and Benin’s Mr Laourouin for the WTO job. These were during the February 2020 26th ordinary session of the Executive Council in Addis Ababa.


“Decisions of the Executive Council on the recommendations of the Committee on a particular candidature shall be binding on all Member States,” provides the Rule 15 of the Rules of Procedure of the Ministerial Committee on Candidatures within the International System.


In July 2019, the Executive Council of the AU had, as recorded in EX.CL/Dec. 1072 seen by PREMIUM TIMES, requested member states to nominate candidates for the WTO’s DG position by November 30 of 2019. The Council, in that decision of July 2019, reckoned that “since the GATT (1948), the WTO’s predecessor, no African has held the post of Director-General at the WTO,” and “strongly recommends” that the next DG be African.


“Pursuant to that Decision, (Nigeria’s) Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) obtained the approval of His Excellency, Mr. President for the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment (FMITI) to nominate a competent Nigerian candidate for approval and submission to the AU Committee on Candidatures within the International System before the closing date of 30th November 2019,” explained a source with inside knowledge.


“In response to the approval and directive by His Excellency, Mr. President, the Honourable Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Otunba Niyi Adebayo, CON, submitted the name of Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah, PhD, for approval and submission to the AU Committee on Candidatures within the International as Nigeria’s candidate for the position of WTO DG.


“At the end of the closing date of 30th November 2019 only three countries, namely, Benin, Egypt and Nigeria were able to submit candidates to the AU Committee on Candidatures within the International System, as stipulated in its Decision No. EX1072 of July 2019.”


There is just about one month before the window for nominations by member states of WTO closes ahead of the final selection or election. But AU’s deadline to receive nominations to choose a candidate it would commonly back ended on November 30, 2019. Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s nomination was only made last Thursday.

Egypt against Okonjo-Iweala

Egypt is opposing Nigeria’s substitution and seeking the country’s disqualification from the AU endorsement process. The Egyptian government argued that the new nomination of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala came well after the due dates and that she was not one of the three candidates considered and shortlisted in the period stipulated.


Egypt, in a memo circulated in Addis Ababa on Friday, requested the AU to “officially inform the African Group” that Nigeria has no candidate and so “Abdulhameed Mamdouh of the Arab Republic of Egypt and Eloi Laourou of the Republic of Benin are currently the only two endorsed African candidates” in the race.


The north African country also hinted at consultations with Benin towards a consensus candidate.


“Cairo feels shortchanged by the nomination (of Okonjo-Iweala), since she (Egypt) had her eyes on the WTO position, after rallying African support in favour of Nigeria’s Adesina (for re-election at AfDB); in spite of an obvious bad case that we’ve tried to paper over with blackmail sentiments,” analysed a source, who asked not to be named.


However, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s media aide, Mr Nwabuikwu said, “It’s clear that Egypt is rattled by her emergence as Nigeria’s candidate and is desperately grabbing at straws. Did you notice that they said they want to quickly convince the Benin Republic candidate to step down for them so that their candidate becomes Africa’s only candidate?”



Meanwhile, as it is unlikely that the AU will endorse Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, the WTO rules, however, allow Nigeria to directly nominate a candidate for the election without any regional endorsement. But doing so, that is running against a candidate endorsed by the AU, presents risks of sanctions.


“Member states that fail to comply with the decisions of the Executive Council on candidatures for elective posts within the International system, in addition to the sanctions provided for in Article 23 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union may also be subject to a suspension of endorsement of their candidatures for a period of five (5) years,” provides Rule 16 of the Rules of Procedure of the AU’s ministerial committee on candidatures within international system.


Further, the Article 23 of the AU’s Constitutive Act mentioned in the rule provides that: “Furthermore, any Member State that fails to comply with the decisions and policies of the Union may be subjected to other sanctions, such as the denial of transport and communications links with other Member States, and other measures of a political and economic nature to be determined by the Assembly.”


Mr Nwonye, spokesperson for Nigeria’s foreign affairs ministry, did not comment when contacted on Sunday over the possible risks involved in Nigeria’s nomination of Mrs Okonjo-Iweala. “I can’t make any statement now,” he said, but assured Abuja would make a statement during the week “certainly”.


But Mr Nwabuikwu, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s media adviser, said, “It is not accurate to say that AU has concluded the process.


“That’s not true at all. AU has a practice of encouraging countries which have nominated candidates for an international position to talk and, if possible, come up with one candidate. But this is not cast in stone and it has not always happened. I’m not aware of the sanction you are talking about and I’m not sure it has ever been applied.”


Seun Kolade, international development expert at the UK’s De Montfort University, Leicester, said it is possible for Mrs Okonjo-Iweala to win without AU’s support and despite the risks.


“I think it’s possible for the West to rally behind Okonjo-Iweala,” he said. But he fears the possibility of Mr Adesina’s failure at AfDB. This is amid concerns Mrs Okonjo-Iweala’s WTO candidacy has the backing of AfDB’s non-African shareholders, mainly the U.S., opposing Mr Adesina.


“AfDB is an organisation where Africans have the best opportunity to directly influence the economic and development trajectory of the continent,” said Mr Kolade. “AfDB is also of great strategic importance because it offers an alternative that can further expose the lacklustre impact of other financial institutions, make more Africans look differently at them in retrospect. More importantly.”


“It can practically drive these other institutions out of business. I believe this is one of the main reasons why the US is heavily invested in taking control of AfDB (by installing their own puppet). It takes this alternative source of finance out of the way for African countries.”


Mr Nwabuikwu did not directly respond to a question on the interests backing Mrs Okonjo-Iweala but he dismissed as “unhealthy speculation” any alleged connection between her WTO bid and Mr Adesina’s AfDB re-election ambition.


He said, “We should focus on supporting our two strong candidates for both positions and not help those working against Nigeria’s interests. Nothing wrong with Nigerians heading both organisations.


“We should be happy that Nigeria has a chance to produce the heads of two critical international institutions. Citizens of smaller and less influential countries like Senegal have been heading different international organisations at the same time for years. Why not Nigeria?”


Mrs Okonjo-Iweala is an AU’s special envoy to mobilise international support for the continent’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.


“There is limit to impunity…”

Commenting, the lawyer, Femi Falana, told PREMIUM TIMES that: “President Buhari must have been made to believe that elections to positions in international bodies can be handled like appointments in Nigeria which defy the provisions of extant laws and official policies.


“Egypt is out to humiliate Nigeria for failure to realise that there is limit to impunity in respect of international appointments. Unless the belated nomination of another candidate is immediately withdrawn Nigeria may be disqualified from contesting the election. It will be so sad because out of the three candidates nominated by the African Union the credentials of Ambassador Yonov Frederick Agah tower above those of the other contestants for the post.


“By the way, why should Dr. Agah with 30 years experience in the area of international trade including service in the World Trade Organisation and (who) has done the country proud, be so humiliated at the apogee of his ambassadorial carrier?”


On May 14, the Director-General of the WTO, Roberto Azevêdo, announced his decision to step down on August 31, one year before his term would expire, saying it was the best way to avert more chaos at the organisation in the face of attacks from American President Donald Trump and threats of a global recession.


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