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Kenyan and Nigerian candidates lead field for WTO chief

Kenya’s Amina Mohamed has emerged as a last-minute candidate to become the next director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), as nominations closed on Wednesday with two African women among the leading contenders.

Britain’s Liam Fox and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad Maziad Al-Tuwaijri were also late entrants into the contest, which can now formally kick off after the deadline for countries to put forward candidates passed on Wednesday evening. 

They are part of a field of eight candidates, in which Ms Mohamed, a former Kenyan trade minister who has chaired the WTO’s general council, and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance minister and senior World Bank official from Nigeria, are widely seen as the two front-runners. Both have pledged to drive modernisation of the bloc’s rules, warning of threats to its relevance if it cannot change.

Their presence in the race has raised expectations that the WTO could choose its first female and first African director-general. 

Emily Rees, a fellow at the European Centre for International Political Economy think-tank in Brussels, said that their ministerial experience as well as gender and geography would help raise the credibility of the organisation. “It helps that both the Kenyan and Nigerian candidates come from the political side,” she said. “With the WTO needing to raise its game, it’s not really time for a technocrat.”

Ms Rees said the ability to remain relatively neutral between the three big powers in the WTO — the US, the EU and China — was important. The Trump administration’s hostility to the WTO and suspicion of Europe helped to deter any EU candidate from standing, including high-profile figures such as trade commissioner Phil Hogan and Spanish foreign minister Arancha González.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister, is also tipped as a strong contender © Bryan R Smith/AFP/Getty

Ms Mohamed and Ms Okonjo-Iweala “can have a good relationship with the US without getting caught up in the Washington DC web”, Ms Rees said.

The decision now falls to the organisation’s more than 160 member countries, which will hold months of hustings and meetings with the candidates in a race that could define the future viability of the WTO — an institution whose authority has been undermined by Donald Trump’s trade wars and Chinese state capitalism. 

Immediate challenges facing the organisation’s new chief will include saving the multilateral’s dispute-settlement system, which has been weakened by a US block on appointments of judges to its appellate body. The director-general will also face complaints from Washington, Tokyo and Brussels that the organisation’s rule book is a relic of the 1990s that is ill-adapted to the rise of developing countries and Chinese industrial subsidies.

The Eu has complained that countries are overusing so-called “special and differential treatment” provisions intended to give developing economies more favourable trade terms. The US, EU and Japan have also agreed joint proposals on restricting state aid to businesses and industries.

The search for new leadership was set in motion by the decision of current director-general Roberto Azevêdo to step down a year early, saying he did not want his departure to snarl up preparations for a 2021 WTO summit. While the Geneva-based institution hopes to conclude the process around the time of Mr Azevêdo’s departure at the end of August, trade officials expect it to last longer as negotiations continues to whittle down the field. 

Other contenders include Hamid Mamdouh from Egypt, a former WTO official, Jesús Seade Kuri of Mexico, a trade negotiator, South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee and Tudor Ulianovschi, a former foreign minister of Moldova.

EU diplomats said that France and other EU governments, along with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, were sympathetic to the idea of an African director-general. 

“It seems the three African contenders are also the three most likely to get it,” said one EU diplomat, noting that there was no support among EU member states for Mr Fox, who is seen as lacking relevant international experience.

Ms Rees said that the candidacies of Mr Fox and Mr Ulianovschi were “irrelevant to the process”.


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