WTO DG: President Buhari’s tactical change and Egypt’s ambush

President Muhammadu Buhari´s decision to substitute Mr. Yonov Frederick Agah with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as Nigeria´s candidate in the race for the prestigious position of Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), has stoked a combination of issues.

The nomination of the former Managing Director of the World Bank, who served previous Nigerian governments as Minister of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, by the Buhari administration elicited much reactions from Nigerians.

Observers described the development as positive signal that the President has turned a new leave in spreading his net to all nooks and crannies.

Others said credit for the meritorious nomination of NOI for the global post by President Buhari should go to the recently appointed Chief of Staff to the president, Prof. Ibrahim Agboola Gambari, who has a prolonged international exposure in the diplomatic circles.

However, the greatest ripples of the new thinking in Abuja reverberated in the international community, where one of the three countries fielding candidates for the election of next WTO DG, Egypt, has cried foul over Nigeria´s choice.

Citing effluxion, the passing of time for the nomination of candidates, the North African country said Nigeria should not substitute its candidate after the Ministerial Committee on candidacies for the election has raised a shortlist of three endorsed candidates.

But experts dismissed Egypt´s position on the grounds that the country, which has Abdulhameed Mamdouh, alongside Eloi Laourou of Republic du Benin and Agah as the three candidates earlier endorsed by the African Union (AU), did not acknowledge that interested countries have till July 8, 2020 to make nominations.

In a letter dated June 4, 2020, President Buhari had, through the Nigerian Embassy and Permanent Mission, communicated the AU and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) of Nigeria´s decision to replace Agah with Okonjo-Iweala.

Surprised by the tactical move to withdraw Agah´s candidacy for the former World Bank MD, the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt in a communication No. 081/2020-AU, dated June 5, 2020, informed the Permanent Missions of the WTO member states on the Ministerial Committee on Candidatures that Nigeria has forfeited its opportunity to contest for the position of DG.

In the memo, copy of which it sent to the African Union Commission (Commissioner of Political Affairs/Office of Legal Counsel), Egypt contended hat by virtue of Executive Council decision EX.CL/December.1090 (XXXVI), it is obvious that three candidates from Republic du Benin, Egypt and Nigeria, have been endorsed by the Executive Council to contest the position.
It therefore argued that by withdrawing its candidate on the list to make a substitution, Nigeria has infringed on the nomination process and no longer eligible to participate.

It would be recalled that two weeks ago, precisely on May 20, 2020, the chairman of WTO General Council, New Zealand´s Mr. David Walker, had told member countries that while the selection process for the organisation´s D-G will begin formally on June 8, 2020, nominations would close on July 8, 2020.
According to Walker, a consolidated list of all candidates would be issued to members, adding that since “candidates cannot run without being nominated by their government, during the first month of the selection period, member states would nominate candidates who are interested in the position.”
He also pointed out that at the close of the nomination period, part of the official procedures would be for the candidates to be invited to meet with members at a special General Council meeting, for an interaction session to enable them present their views and take questions from the members.
As Egypt was said to be mounting intense lobby to have Laourou of Republic du Benin withdraw so that it could field its national, Mamdouh, as consensus candidate, how does that affect Nigeria´s nomination process?
An International Communication and Development Expert, Dr. Arthur-Martins Aginam, said Nigeria understood that the situation called for leveraging of influence in the impending international competition and decided to focus on clout.
Aginam, who is also a Lecturer at the Faculty of Management and Social Sciences, Baze University, Abuja, said what is playing is very simple; stressing that although Egypt felt that Nigeria would sit back with the erroneous belief that Mr. Agah, being a deputy Director General, would be in a better position to clinch the post.
Aginam stated: “The Director General is not a routine succession issue like in some organisations, where the Deputy Director General automatically becomes the DG. The issue therefore is that Egypt is afraid, scared, more like.
“And Nigeria understood the fact even though the DDG may be an accomplished diplomat; he is a light weight in global politics. People don’t really know about him. It is about influence and leveraging your influence, because it is an international competition.
“As such with Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, given her antecedents and what she has accomplished, whether as Managing Director of World Bank and all the things has done; even with the global vaccine project, she has that international massive stature compared to anyone else and she stands a brighter chance if she is Nigeria´s candidate, to clinch the position of WTO DG.”
The International Development expert said that Nigeria did the right thing based on the fact that all countries of the world would be voting, so, it was better to nominate a solid candidate with global presence.
“So Egypt is afraid, because they know it is going to be very difficult for whichever candidate they bring up to actually stand any chance against NOI,” Aginam noted, remarking that Egypt was acting out of fear and nothing against the process.
Although supplanting Adah from Middle Belt with Southeast´s Okonjo-Iweala presented another dilemma, it is possible that the dictates of competitive advantage for international visibility trumped sub-national considerations.

Aginam said the development should be viewed from the perspective that Okonjo-Iweala´s nomination was a tactical move by Nigeria to brighten its prospects.
“Adah is accomplished in his own right and expertise, but at the end of the day, it is not so much about your expertise, it is also about the stature of the candidate, given the geopolitics and everything that gets involved,” he stated.
BUT contrary to impressions that the FG may have settled for NOI solely to brighten Nigeria’s chances, a former diplomatic attaché confirmed to The Guardian that the initiative came from the U.S.
He recalled how Egypt used the tenure of Boutrus Ghali to allegedly pursue some interests inimical to that of the U.S., explaining that the Americans were wary of Egypt’s lobby to emerge as consensus candidate.
“So, the U.S. didn’t want to see a helpless situation that could undermine the diversity of choice.
“Nigeria is highly favoured to clinch the post and our allies felt we should emerge with a stronger candidate that can command global respect”, he said.

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