An African woman is likely to land the world’s top trade job. It’s just a question of which one, because two are vying to lead the World Trade Organization.
When Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister and corruption-buster, entered the race in early June, it significantly increased the prospect that it could fall to the WTO’s first African boss to lead the sclerotic institution out of the paralysis caused by a trade war between America and China.
But impressive as Okonjo-Iweala’s CV might be, her trade experience is limited.
Amina Mohamed, Kenya’s candidate for the job, is positioning herself as the “plug-and-play” candidate. She knows the corridors of the Geneva-based organization from her experience as ambassador in Geneva as well as from hosting the WTO’s ministerial conference in Nairobi in 2015 when she was the country’s trade minister.
“There’s no time to go through a learning curve — one needs to hit the ground running,” Mohamed told POLITICO in an interview from Geneva, where she’s now based for the campaign. “The WTO is at a crossroads, and the membership knows that,” she said.
All three Africans are boosted by a growing consensus in Geneva that it’s time for an African trade chief as the continent has never held the post.
At the same time, her political chops in Kenya and her experience at the United Nations differentiate her from the Egyptian Hamid Mamdouh, who is a trade technocrat.
“I delivered when I was here as ambassador to the WTO. I delivered in Nairobi on an agreement on export subsidies for agriculture, which had been discussed for 15 years. We accepted in Nairobi that there was need to complement the multilateral negotiations by getting groups of countries to discuss issues that were important for the system. We got that done in Nairobi and today we have several plurilateral negotiations going, such as on e-commerce. If that’s not a good track record – I don’t know what is.”
All three Africans are boosted by a growing consensus in Geneva that it’s time for an African trade chief as the continent has never held the post, while other regions such as Europe have held it several times.
“Africa has a good contribution to make,” said Mohamed. “It’s not only the biggest continent with the largest number of countries, it’s also the continent with the youngest population. In Africa, there’s still a conviction that multilateralism works and that we should support the system.”
To revamp the multilateral trading system, one of Mohamed’s first priorities would be to fix the Appellate Body, the WTO’s highest court that has been paralyzed because the U.S. is blocking the appointment of new judges.
“We need the Appellate Body,” Mohamed said. “If I get selected, this will definitely be a priority. The WTO is the only multilateral organization that has a dispute settlement system. There’s a good reason for that: Trade disputes are serious disputes. The WTO was established to make sure that any disputes that we might have are peacefully resolved.”
At the same time, Mohamed wants to make sure there will be more multilateral negotiations — a reform of fisheries subsidies is currently the only multilateral negotiation going on in Geneva. “We need much more happening at the multilateral sphere,” Mohamed said. She also wants to settle more trade disputes within the WTO framework, for example when it comes to China.
The EU has no candidate of its own for the WTO top job and in the past said that it wants to forge closer alliances with Africa. Asked whether she hoped to get backing from the EU, Mohamed said she’s talking to all members, including EU governments. “The members have the wisdom to decide who they would like at this point when the WTO is at a crossroad.”
The article first appeared in POLITICO