The WTO job is all fine but is the institution made for our times?

Tuesday September 01 2020

From left: Nigeria's Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Kenya's Amina Mohamed and Egypt's Abdel-Hamid Mamdouh, the three candidates from Africa contending for the WTO top seat. PHOTOS | AFP & NATION MEDIA GROUP


There has been some consternation in Africa, that the continent failed to agree on a single candidate for the upcoming contest to be the next director-general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Africa has never led the WTO, and there is a general sense in the world that it is “our turn to eat”. Pan-Africanists are worried that at a time when we have the best shot, we are putting it in jeopardy by splitting the vote.

However, precisely because this is the best time for an African to win the WTO director-generalship, we have many of our people fighting for it. If defeat was certain, we’d have no candidate.

Now from East Africa we have Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary (minister) for Sports, Heritage and Culture Amina Mohamed. Ms Mohamed was also previously Kenya’s WTO General Council chair. From West Africa we have former Nigerian foreign and finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; and from North Africa Egyptian former diplomat Hamid Mamdouh.

One of the arguments for a single candidate for a continent or bloc, is that other regions do it. The west Europeans are usually very disciplined in these things. Other parts of the world not always so.

The other is that a candidate from a continent, will steer the organisation to respond better to the issues of his or her region. That’s a case for a kind of international tribalism and nepotism.


A regional version of the issue confronting Africa at the WTO, presented itself in June in the contest for the third African seat in the UN Security Council.

The West Africans agreed, and Niger took it. There was consensus in North Africa, and it went to Tunisia. In Eastern African Kenya was the presumptive regional candidate, until Djibouti threw its hat in the ring, arguing that Kenya had been on the Security Council before. Words were exchanged between Nairobi and Djibouti, to no avail.

The matter was settled at the ballot where Kenya, in the end, dispatched Djibouti decisively by 129 votes to 62. The world didn’t end. We are all still here.

For all the merits of regional and continental consensus around candidates for these big global jobs, it is an antiquated approach. We won’t shame anyone, but past experience teaches us that having your continent-mate doesn’t always translate into the organisation serving you better.

Secondly, the consensus regional or continental candidates are not always the best. That’s because governments have never been the world’s greatest talent scouts. In this case, all the three African rivals have previously shown they are competent, however they also have all been around the block more than once.

The bigger issue though, is not about the candidates. It’s about the institutions. In an episode of the TV series “Killing Eve”, a villainous head of a tech giant, tells the cops that the state is dead. That what sense do state intelligence organisations like MI6 make, when tech giants like his have more information and reach than they can dream of.

When you have global corporations worth $2 trillion that have flattened national borders, you can’t help but wonder if organisations like WTO can actually meaningfully order world trade anymore.